Skip to main content

Full text of "Boxing: A Cultural History"

See other formats









For David 

Published by Reaktion Books Ltd 

33 Great Sutton Street 

London eciv odx 

First published 2008 

Copyright © Kasia Boddy 2008 

All rights reserved 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in 

any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, 

without the prior permission of the publishers. 

Printed and bound in China 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data 

Boddy, Kasia 

Boxing : a cultural history 

1. Boxing - Social aspects - History 

2. Boxing - History 

I. Title 


ISBN 978 1 86189 369 7 


Introduction 7 

1 The Classical Golden Age 9 

2 The English Golden Age 26 

3 Pugilism and Style 55 

4 'Fighting, Rightly Understood' 76 

5 'Like Any Other Profession' 110 

6 Fresh Hopes 166 

7 Sport of the Future 209 

8 Save Me, Jack Dempsey; Save Me, Joe Louis 257 

9 King of the Hill, and Further Raging Bulls 316 

Conclusion 367 

References 392 

Select Bibliography 456 

Acknowledgements 470 

Photo Acknowledgements 471 

Index 472 


William Roberts, 
The Boxing Match, 
Novices, 1914. 

The symbolism of boxing does not allow for ambiguity; it is, as amateur mid- 
dleweight Albert Camus put it, 'utterly Manichean'. The rites of boxing 'simplify 
everything. Good and evil, the winner and the loser.' 1 More than anything, the 
boxing match has served as a metaphor for opposition - the struggle between two 
bodies before an audience, usually for money, representing struggles between 
opposing qualities, ideas and values. In the modern works that this book 
considers, those struggles involve nationality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, 
politics, and different versions of masculinity. As light heavyweight Roy Jones, Jr. 
once said, 'if it made money, it made sense.' 2 But the conflicts dramatized in 
modern boxing also rework the fundamental oppositions set up in the very 
earliest texts: brawn versus brain; boastfulness versus modesty; youth versus 
experience. In literary and artistic terms, the clash is also often one of voices and 
styles. In the Protagoras, Plato even likens the moves and countermoves of Socratic 
debate to a boxing match. 3 

Boxing, it seems, has been around forever. The first evidence of the sport 
can be found in Mesopotamian stone reliefs from the end of the fourth millen- 
nium bc. Since then there has hardly been a time in which young men, and 
sometimes women, did not raise their gloved or ungloved fists to one other. 
William Roberts's 1914 watercolour The Boxing Match, Novices conveys the 
relentless succession of contenders, champions and palookas that makes up 
the history of boxing. Throughout this history, potters, painters, poets, novel- 
ists, cartoonists, song-writers, photographers and film-makers have been there 
to record and make sense of the bruising, bloody confrontation. 'For some 
reason,' sportswriter Gary Wills remarked, 'people don't want fighters just 
to be fighters.' 4 

Writing about boxing is often nostalgic, evoking a golden age long since 
departed. Today the period most keenly remembered is that of the late 1960s 
and early '70s, a time dominated by Muhammad Ali, a time, as a recent docu- 
mentary would have it, 'when we were kings'. 5 Not long before, however, many 
were sure that the 1930s and '40s represented the peak of excellence, and 
lamented the arrival of televised sport as the end of a 'heroic cycle'. 6 Further 

back still, early twentieth-century commentators considered the Regency as the 
time when pugilism flourished as never since; while for Regency writers, true 
glory and prowess resided in the sport's original manifestations in classical 
Greece. In the third century ad, Philostratus looked back to the good old days 
before 'the energetic became sluggards, the hardened became weak, and Sicil- 
ian gluttony gained the upper hand'. 7 

Although this book is about boxing in its modern form, myths about the 
golden ages of classical and Regency boxing have had such a lasting impact on 
ways of thinking about the sport that I begin with them. The first two chapters 
chart the early history of boxing and the establishment of ideas about courage 
and honour, ritual and spectatorship, beauty and the grotesque that are still in 
use today. The third chapter explores what pugilistic style meant to Regency 
painters and writers. 

The golden age of English boxing was over by 1830. Nevertheless, the sport 
continued to hold sway over the popular imagination throughout the nineteenth 
century. Chapter Four considers the divide between (dangerous, illegal) prize 
fighting and (honourable, muscular Christian) sparring in the Victorian era, 
and the appeal of each to writers as different as George Eliot and Arthur Conan 
Doyle. The fin de stick rise of professional boxing (and its association with the 
development of mass media such as journalism and cinema in America) is the 
subject of Chapter Five. Women (welcome participants in the eighteenth cent- 
ury) now re-entered the arenas as spectators. Chapter Six shifts the focus to 
questions of race and ethnicity, investigating the ways in which boxing was 
associated with assimilation for young Jewish immigrants and the ways in which 
black American boxers struggled against the early twentieth-century colour 
line. The career and enormous cultural impact of Jack Johnson, the first of the 
twentieth-century's great black heavyweights, is explored in some detail. 
Another iconic presence, Jack Dempsey, dominates Chapter Seven. The chapter 
considers the sports-mad twenties and argues that many of modernism's styles 
were self-consciously pugilistic. 

The final two chapters take us to the end of the twentieth century. Chapter 
Eight discusses mid-century representations of boxing and the ways in which the 
sport now featured largely as a metaphor for corruption and endurance - that 
is, until a young fighter called Joe Louis emerged on the scene. Finally, Chapter 
Nine examines the era of Muhammad Ali, television, Black Power, and further 
compensatory white hopes. The conclusion brings the story up to date, taking 
into account, among other matters, Mike Tyson and hip hop, conceptual art's 
glove fetishism and the enduring appeal of sweaty gyms. 


The Classical Golden Age 

Looking back nostalgically from the third century ad to the glorious athletic past 
of Classical Greece, Philostratus claimed that the Spartans invented boxing. 1 In 
fact, activities resembling boxing and wrestling were recorded much earlier, in 
third millennium bc Egypt and Mesopotamia. By the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 
bc) images of pugilists could be found across the Eastern Mediterranean - some, 
like the figures on a Mycenean pot from Cyprus, are fairly sketchy (illus. 2); oth- 
ers, like the fresco of the young Boxing Boys from Thera (illus. 43), are striking 
and detailed. 2 In both cases, the boxers adopt an attitude similar to that found 
in Greek vase paintings 1,000 years later. The earliest of Greek literary works, 
the Iliad and the Odyssey, written in the eighth century bc, describe athletic games 
held at the time of the Trojan war, traditionally dated around 1200 bc. 

The funeral games for Patroclus in the Iliad (c. 750 bc) include the 'first re- 
port of a prize fight' in literature. 3 The games come late in the war, and in the 
penultimate book of the poem. Anthropologists and classical scholars have long 
debated the role of sports on such occasions. While some suggest that the fun- 
eral games simply served to celebrate the courage of the dead warrior, others 
argue that they were religious festivals and that sport was linked to ritual 
sacrifice. 4 Discussions of the symbolic role of boxing and other forms of violent 
combat sport often draw on Clifford Geertz's essay on Balinese cockfighting, 
and Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred. Geertz argues that the cockfight 
should not be seen merely as a form of popular entertainment, but as a blood 
sacrifice to the forces threatening social order. 'Deep play', a term that Geertz 
adopts from Bentham, is a game whose stakes are so high that, from a utilitar- 
ian point of view, it is irrational to play; this does not make the game unplayable, 
however, but elevates it. Instead of merely demanding the calculation of odds, 
the game works symbolically to represent the uncertain gamble that is life itself. 5 
The competitors involved in such contests are simultaneously derided and 
honoured, acting, as Girard put it, as 'substitutes for all the members of the 
community', while 'offered up by the community itself.' 6 'The winner symbol- 
ically "lives" by winning the ritual contest, the losers "die"', and the spectators are 
vaccinated 'with the evil of violence against the evil of violence'. 7 

Two boxers on 
a fragment of a 
Mycenaean pot 
from Cyprus, 
c. 1300-1200 BC. 

The games described in the penultimate book of the Iliad certainly do more 
than simply provide more entertaining fight scenes. Most commentators read 
the funeral games for Patroclus as one of the poem's 'representative moments'; 
that is, they encapsulate the issues of honour and reward that the poem usually 
dramatizes on the battlefield. 8 For some commentators, their function is to 'pu- 
rify' combat - that is, to imitate it but conceal its true deadly character. 9 For 
others, though, the real point is that, to the watching gods, the horrors of war 
(involving such dramatic moments as Achilles' pursuit of Hector) is itself like an 
athletic spectacle. 10 Prize-giving - the nature and function of reward - forms 
the topic of much debate. The boxing contest is preceded by Achilles giving 
Nestor a two-handled bowl 'simply as a gift', for now 'old age has its cruel hold' 
upon him. He accepts it, acknowledging that 'now it is for younger men to face 
these trials'. The prizes for the boxing match are then set forth: the winner will 
receive 'a hard-working mule', signifying endurance, the loser a two-handled 
cup. Prefiguring the boasts of Muhammad Ali, Epeios claims the prize before 
any competitor has even stepped forward: 

I say I am the greatest ... It will certainly be done as I say - 1 will smash 
right through the man's skin and shatter his bones. And his friends had 
better gather here ready for his funeral, to carry him away when my 
fists have broken him. 11 

Finally someone steps forward, Euryalos, another 'godlike man' of noble lineage, 
though we hear little about him. It seems to be an even match, but Homer 

presents it in very general terms - a 'flurry of heavy hands meeting', a 'fearful 
crunching of jaws', followed by a knockout blow to Euryalos's collarbone. All 
that matters is that Epeios's boasts are justified - he is the greatest (after all, he 
is also the man who designed the wooden horse). 'Godlike', he is also described 
as 'great-hearted' because, despite his threats, he does not kill his opponent, but 
lifts him to his feet. Symbolic conflict acts as the transition between combat 
with consequences and combat with none, between narrative complication and 
closure. It quarantines real violence (the crunching of jaws) by enfolding it be- 
tween two layers of symbolic violence (the bloodthirsty boast, the raising of the 
vanquished). Boxing, here, is the ultimate deep play. 

Justified boastfulness also features in the Odyssey (c. 725 bc). In book eight, 
the Phaeacians seek to impress the travel-weary Odysseus with a display of their 
athletic prowess. All goes well until Laodamas, son of the prince and a champion 
boxer, urges their guest to participate, telling him, 'there is no greater glory that 
can befall a man living than what he achieves by speed of his feet or strength of 
his hands'. When Odysseus declines, arguing that home is all he can think of, 
Laodamas rashly counters, 'You do not resemble an athlete.' Such a challenge 
does not go unanswered by the 'darkly resourceful Odysseus'. He grabs a heavy 
discus, and then offers to take on anyone at boxing, wrestling or running, 'ex- 
cept Laodamas / himself, for he is my host; who would fight with his friend?' 12 
The crisis is averted when the prince intervenes with music and dancing. 
Odysseus is less successful in avoiding a fight when, ten books later, disguised 
again, he returns home to Ithaca. There, Iros, a large and greedy beggar, insults 
him gratuitously. Egged on by Penelope's suitors, Iros rejects Odysseus's claim 
of solidarity between beggars and demands a 'battle of hands'. 13 The suitors 
enjoy this tremendously and offer prizes. Here we find the first instance of spec- 
tators as villains in a boxing story: unwilling to fight themselves, but vicariously 
enjoying the risks someone else will run, and gambling on the outcome. 14 Al- 
though Odysseus is outweighed and does not fight at full capacity (he is still 
anxious to conceal his identity), he manages to break some bones in Iros's neck, 
and as a final humiliation drags his opponent's prostrate body to the foot of the 
courtyard wall. Survival is the issue here, not prize-winning. The contest is 'a 
street fight that happens to involve a very skilful athlete in disguise'. 15 If the Iliad 
reminds us of Ali's theatrical boasting, the Odyssey anticipates his resilience. 

Such pragmatism was of no use to subsequent idealizations of pugilism's 
golden age. As Tom Winnifrith points out, 'there is not in Homer the belief that 
behaving well somehow wins matches and battles'. 16 However reluctant Odysseus 
is to fight, when persuaded he does not hold back. Honour and restraint, 
however, were central to the Virgilian ethos of the Roman Empire. It was Virgil, 
not Homer, who was evoked by the nineteenth-century muscular Christians, 
and the founding of the modern Olympics in 1896 was 'fired by Virgilian en- 
thusiasm'. 17 Greater honour, paradoxically, was accompanied by even greater 
brutality. This is apparent if we compare the gloves used in Greek and Roman 
times. 18 Today, boxers tend to use eight- to ten-ounce gloves in competition and 

anything up to eighteen-ounce gloves for sparring. Heavier gloves give greater 
protection both to the hands of the person striking the blow, and to the face 
and body of the blow's recipient. Until around the end of the fifth century bc, 
strips of leather of between ten and twelve feet long were used as 'soft gloves' 
(himantes). These protected the knuckles rather than the opponent's face. They 
were replaced by caestus, 'sharp gloves', lined with metal, which could maim 
and even kill an opponent (illus. 3). Dryden translated Virgil's caestus as: 

The Gloves of Death, with sev'n distinguish'd folds, 
Of tough Bull Hides; the space within is spread 
With Iron, or with loads of heavy Lead. 19 

This sounds like the kind of excessive violence, much more than sufficient to 
its purpose, that Odysseus tried hard to avoid. 

The fact that boxing gloves were made of bull hide may have been the rea- 
son that boxers and bulls were often compared with each other. In theArgonau- 
tica, Apollonius likens Amycus and Polydeuces to 'a pair of bulls angrily disput- 
ing for a grazing heifer', while Virgil, in the Georgics, describes a young heifer as 
he trains for a fight, learn [ing] to put / Fury into his horns' and 'sparring with 
the air'. 20 The link between boxers and bulls continued into the twentieth cen- 
tury with men fighting under names like 'El Toro' and 'Bronx Bull', and their op- 
ponents figured as matadors. Hemingway admired the way a particular animal 
used his left and right horn, 'just like a boxer', while for Mailer, it was George 
Foreman's ability to use his gloves like horns' that made him so dangerous. 21 

The funeral games for Anchises staged in the Aeneid (19 bc) recall, and to 
some extent imitate, those of the Iliad. But Virgil's structure is more intricate 
and his tone is quite different from Homer's easy exuberance. 22 The boat and 
foot races over, Aeneas sets out prizes for the boxing - a bullock for the victor, 
and a sword and helmet for the loser. As in the Iliad, one man comes forward 
immediately. Here is it Dares, the Trojan, 'who stood there with his head held 
high to begin the battle, flexing his shoulders, throwing lefts and rights and 
thrashing the air. They looked around for an opponent, but no one in all that 
company dared go near him or put on the gloves'. Thinking there is to be no 
contest, Dares goes to collect the bullock as his prize. Only then does Entellus, 
spurred on by Acestes, come forward. 

Dares is obviously modelled on the brash and youthful Epeios, but while 
Homer simply confirms that Epeios is 'godlike' with a straightforward victory, Vir- 
gil makes both character and action more complicated. Entellus is not presented 
as just any opponent (as Euryalos had been in the Iliad); he is motivated less by a 
desire for prizes or boastfulness than by a complex mixture of emotions. Acestes' 
words have roused his sense of honour; he feels indebted to his teacher, the god 
Eryx; he does not want to be thought a liar, or a coward; he feels himself a repre- 
sentative of Sicily against Troy. In all things Entellus is the antithesis of Dares: 

Three types of early 
boxing glove. 

Dares had youth on his side and speed of foot. Entellus had the reach 
and the weight, but his knees were going. He was slow and shaky and his 
whole huge body heaved with the agony of breathing. Blow upon blow 
they threw at each other and missed. Blow upon blow drummed on the 
hollow rib cage, boomed on the chest and showered round the head and 
ears, and the cheekbones rattled with the weight of the punches. 

Dares begins well, knocking Entellus down; the giant man falls 'as a hollow pine 
tree falls, torn up by the roots on great Mount Ida' - a common simile in clas- 
sical, and subsequent, depictions of fights. But, as we might expect, this only 
spurs on Entellus: 

He returned to the fray with his ferocity renewed and anger rousing 
him to new heights of violence. His strength was kindled by shame at 
his fall and pride in his prowess, and in a white heat of fury he drove 
Dares before him all over the arena, hammering him with rights and 
lefts and allowing him no rest or respite. Like hailstones from a dark 
cloud rattling down on roofs, Entellus battered Dares with a shower of 
blows from both hands and sent him spinning. 23 

Dares may have the strength, youth and confidence of a young animal, but 
Entellus, armed with psychological demons as well as mere muscles, is a true 
force of nature - falling like a pine tree and retaliating with blows like hailstones. 
Nature, or 'savage passion', must, however, be controlled, and so 'Father Aeneas' 
intervenes and ends the fight. This is one of the first fight stories in which the 
restraining referee is the hero. 24 Aeneas tells Dares to acknowledge that 'the 


divine will has turned against you', while Entellus ritually slaughters the bull he 
has won in honour of Eryx, and retires from boxing. The two men play no further 
part in the poem: boxing itself seems like a relic from some long-gone mythic age. 
The values of Augustan Rome have been made clear: piety is the basis for power 
and success; temperance and restraint the mark of a military leader. 25 

In years to come, the fights described by Homer and Virgil would provide 
models for many writers. Both tell stories of drama and suspense, but each has 
a different emphasis. In Homer, fighting may come as a last resort but when it 
does, no punches are pulled, and there is no need to be modest about one's 
prowess. Virgil's fighters are equipped with lethal gloves, but checked by the 
need to govern their anger, and by vanity. 


Homer and Virgil both compare conduct in games to that in war. It is not always 
the case that the same man is good at both activities, merely that they are anal- 
ogous. In the Iliad, Epeios's boast begins, 'Is it not enough that I am less good in 
battle? ... a man cannot be expert in all things'. 26 Less expert at boxing, but more 
so at battle, is Achilles, yet he shares with Epeios a firm belief in his own ability. 
He boasts that no one is a match for him, and we soon see that no one can chal- 
lenge his 'invincible hands'. 27 And in theAeneid, we are reminded of Dares and 
Enthellus when later we come to compare the behaviour of Turnus and Aeneas 
in a real fight to the death. 28 The relationship between pugilism and war is also 
at the forefront of many of Plato's references to boxing (three of his dialogues are 
set in the gymnasium and palaestra). In the Laws, he argues for the necessity of 
training soldiers to be prepared for war by comparing them with boxers training 
for fight ('if we were training boxers . . . would we go straight into the ring unpre- 
pared by a daily work-out against an opponent?'); in the Republic the analogy is 
extended further - as 'one boxer in perfect training is easily a match for two men 
who are not boxers, but rich and fat', so a well-prepared Athens could go to war 
against wealthier and more powerful enemies. 29 

Boxing similes were not only used in discussions of war and its attendant 
virtues and risks. They can also be found, for example, in debates about the 
qualities needed for successful political debating (Plutarch) and ways of dealing 
with the dishonest in everyday life (Marcus Aurelius). 30 Aristotle evokes boxing 
in the Nicomachean Ethics (c. 330 bc) when he wants to explain the nature of 
pain and pleasure in courage. Men who withstand painful things, he writes, are 
brave, while those spurred on by passions such as revenge are 'pugnacious but 
not brave'. Sometimes, however, there is a gap between the pleasant end 'which 
courage sets before itself and the painful 'attending circumstances'. This is the 
case in athletic contests: 

the end at which boxers aim is pleasant - the crown and the honours - 
but the blows they take are distressing to flesh and blood, and painful, 


and so is their whole exertion; and because the blows and the exertions 
are many the end, which is but small, appears to have nothing in it. 31 

Boxers are brave because, in the heat of the fight, it is not prizes but virtue 
(courage) that motivates them. Courage, like all Aristotelian virtues, operates as 
a mediating strategy between other qualities; here, confidence and fear. Too 
much confidence, or too little fear, and no courage is needed; too much fear or 
too little confidence, and one is paralyzed. 

The use of boxing analogies to discuss virtue was not restricted to class- 
ical philosophy. The nature of courage required for religious struggle (and 
the importance of keeping your eyes on the prize) was one of the subjects of 
the First Letter to the Corinthians (c. 48 ad). There Paul insists that he is a 
genuine fighter rather than a shadow boxer ('one that beateth the air', in the 
King James version). Moreover, he goes on, in a phrase that would prove res- 
onant for muscular Christianity, 'I keep under my own body, and bring it 
into subjection.' 32 


Boxing played an important part in the games of ancient Greece; both in the 
four great Panhellenic festivals - the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian 
- and in the numerous local games held in individual cities. The most presti- 
gious Games, the Olympic, began in 776 bc, and boxing was introduced in 688 
bc. 33 The festival spanned five days; the first and last were reserved for cere- 
monies and celebrations; boxing tookplace on the fourth day at midday so that 
neither competitor had the sun in his eyes. The sport was similar to modern 
boxing to the extent that each competitor attempted to injure or exhaust his 
opponent by punching him. There were, however, no rounds, rest periods, 
weight classes or points systems. There was no rule against hitting an opponent 
when down and no confined ring. Boxers were paired by lot; a single elimination 
format was used. A winner was declared when one boxer was no longer physi- 
cally able to continue (illus. 4). Although the Olympic ideal has long been 
evoked as a model of fairness and sportsmanship, often in contrast to modern 
corruption, Pausanias's Guide to Greece (170 ad) reveals that fight fixing actu- 
ally began at the 98th Olympics: 

Eulopos of Thessaly bribed the boxers who entered, Agetor of Arkadia 
and Prytanis of Kyzikos, and also Phormion of Halikarnassos, who won 
the boxing at the previous Olympics. This is said to have been the first 
crime ever committed in the games, and Eulopos and the men he 
bribed were the first to be fined . . . 34 

The Romans were generally disdainful of the Greek love of the gymnasium, 
but boxing also played a part in the Ludi Romani. According to Suetonius, 'none 


Boxers with prize 
tripod in back- 
ground, fragment 
of Black-figure 
vase, mid-sixth 
century bc. 

of Augustus's predecessors had ever provided so many, so different, or such splen- 
did public shows'. He goes on to detail wild-beast hunts, mock sea-battles and 
gladiatorial shows of all kinds, but says that Augustus's 'chief delight was to watch 
boxing, particularly when the fighters were Italians - and not merely professional 
bouts, in which he often used to pit Italians against Greeks or Africans against 
each other, but slogging matches between untrained roughs in narrow city alleys' 
(illus. 5). 35 The boxers in these contests used the oxhide caestus, and injuries were 
severe. This perhaps accounts for Augustus's introduction of a series of regula- 
tions as to who could take part (a senatorial decree banned persons 'of good 
family' from events such as boxing) and who could watch such contests. 36 
Suetonius notes that whereas 'men and women had hitherto always sat together, 
Augustus confined women to the back rows even at gladiatorial shows': 

No women at all were allowed to witness the athletic contests; indeed, 
when the audience clamoured at the Games for a special boxing match 
to celebrate his appointment as Chief Pontiff, Augustus postponed this 
until early the next morning, and issued a proclamation to the effect 
that it was the Chief Pontiff 's desire that women should not attend the 
Theatre before ten o'clock. 37 

In a reassessment of Plato's Laws, Cicero argued that the theatre should be kept 
free from the bloody sport of the Games, but it is clear that some infiltration 
took place. 38 Horace complained of crowds calling out for boxers or bears in 
the middle of a play, while Terence attributed the failure of one his plays to the 
rival attraction of boxing. 39 A couple of millennia later, Bertolt Brecht was to 
make a new theatre out of such infiltrations. While Brecht felt that boxing fans 
viewed the sport with cool objectivity and rationally judged the performance 


African boxers; 
terracotta, second 
or first century bo 

of each participant, the more common view (exemplified in every Hollywood 
fight film and first expressed in another classic work of the late Roman Empire, 
St Augustine's Confessions) was that boxing degrades its audience as much as 
its participants. St Augustine tells the story of a reluctant visit to the gladiator- 
ial arena by his pupil, Alypius. At first Alypius closes his eyes, but he cannot 
close his ears. When the crowd roars, he is unable to contain his curiosity and 
so opens his eyes. Immediately, and dramatically, he is corrupted by what he 
sees: 'he fell, and fell more pitifully than the man whose fall had drawn that roar 
of excitement from the crowd'. 40 



The funeral games of Homer's and Virgil's epics provide one enduring model for 
depicting sporting events. Another can be found in the odes, known as epinicians 
(epi-Nike-ans), written by the fifth-century bc poets Pindar and Bacchylides, in 
celebration of the victors in the athletic games. 

To the lyre the Muse granted tales of gods and children of gods, of the victor 
in boxing, of the horse first in the race, of the loves of swains, and of freedom 
over wine. 41 

Pierian Muses, daughters 

of Zeus who rules 

on high, you are famed for your 

skill with the lyre: strum 

and weave for us then intricate 

songs for Argeius, the junior boxer, 

the Isthmian games' victor. 42 

If epic poetry memorialized battles that spanned decades and had national 
significance, the epinician celebrated the fleeting triumphs of sport, giving last- 
ing form to the deed of the moment.' 43 

I look for help to the Muses 

with their blue-black hair, 

to bless my song of how, in this life, 

contingent, ephemeral, 

a few things somehow endure. 44 

The victories of the athletes were often represented as imitative of the bat- 
tle victories of epic heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus, whose triumphs in 
turn were compared to those of the gods. 

Let Hagesidamos 

Who has won in the boxing at Olympia, 

Thank Illas as Patroklos thanked Achilles. 

One born to prowess 

May be whetted and stirred 

To win huge glory 

If a God be his helper. 45 

Also located within this hierarchy of kinds of victory was the poet himself, with- 
out whom all heroes would be forgotten, and whose memorializing skill was 
itself worthy of praise (and medals). 46 A different notion of honour emerges, 


one less directly attached to the virtues necessary for combat and having more 
to do with those essential to art. According to Richmond Lattimore, it was the 
'very uselessness of . . . [the athletic] triumphs which attracted Pindar': 'A victory 
meant that time, expense, and hard work had been lavished on an achievement 
that brought no calculable advantage, only honour and beauty.' 47 

Father Zeus, ruler on Atabyrion's ridges, 
Honour the rite of Olympian victory, 

And a man who has found prowess in boxing. 

Grant him favour and joy 

From citizens and strangers. 

For he goes straight on a road that hates pride, 

And knows well what a true heart 

From noble fathers has revealed to him. 48 

The odes of Bacchylides and Pindar, which firmly connect the activities of the 
poet with those of the athlete, were echoed in Roman times by Horace and by 
neo-classical poets in the eighteenth century. 49 It might be argued that epinician 
tradition also lies behind some of the more extravagant claims made by sports- 
writers in modern times. 


Today classical Greek athletics continues to fascinate us, not simply because of 
the sporting principles it initiated, but because of the language it provides for 
talking about the human body, and, particularly, its glories. Training, and the 
culture of the gymnasium, are treated widely in Greek literature, and much writ- 
ing about that culture focuses on the beauties of the naked bodies displayed 
there. Disapproving of the violence of the Roman gladiatorial contests, Dio 
Chrysostom sets up an alternative in the gentler, more philosophical, world of 
the Greek gymnasium where his ideal boxer Melancomas 'did not consider it 
courage to strike his opponent or to receive an injury himself, but thought this 
indicated a lack of stamina and a desire to have done with the contest'. Melan- 
comas's unblemished beauty is directly linked to his moral virtues - his disci- 
pline, courage, modesty and self-control. Dio compares Melancomas to his 
closest rival, Iatrocles, whom he remembers in training. 

He was a very tall and beautiful young man; and besides, the exercises 
he was taking made his body seem, quite naturally, still taller and 
more beautiful. He was giving a most brilliant performance, and in so 
spirited a way that he seemed more like a man in an actual contest. 
Then, when he stopped exercising and the crowd began to draw away, 
we studied him more closely. He was just like one of the most care- 


fully wrought statues, and also he had a colour like well blended 


If Melancomas's beauty reveals his inner virtue, that of Iatrocles exists on the 
surface only. 51 

The comparison of (stationary) athletes with statues would prove endur- 
ing and later commentators were less inclined to worry about the gap between 
outer and inner beauty. Boxing's revival in the eighteenth century coincided 
with a revival of interest in the classics, and much writing about the male boxer, 
then and later, drew on notions of statuesque perfection as exemplified by Greek 
athletes. In 1755, for example, the German Hellenist, Winckelmann, famously 
argued that the excellence of Greek art was, in some part, due to the availabil- 
ity of fine models: 

The gymnasia, where, sheltered by public modesty, the youths exer- 
cised themselves naked, were the schools of art. These the philosopher 
frequented, as well as the artist. Socrates for the instruction of a 
Charmides, Autolycus, Lysis; Phidias for the improvement of his art by 
their beauty. Here he studied the elasticity of the muscles, the ever vary- 
ing motions of the frame, the outlines of fair forms, or the contour left 
by the young wrestler in the sand. Here beautiful nakedness appeared 
with such liveliness of expression, such truth and variety of situations, 
such a noble air of the body, as it would be ridiculous to look for in any 
hired model of our academies. 52 

Gymnasia were, of course, also places of seduction and athletic statues often 
highly eroticized, but Winckelmann insisted that 'ideal beauty' was about estab- 
lishing a connection to 'something superior to nature; ideal beauties, brain- 
born images' - what James Davidson defines as 'the sculptural complement to 
the idealism of Platonic philosophy'. 'The ideal body is not at all earthly or 
earthy: it provides an accurate material reflection of the heavenly, the insub- 
stantial and the divine.' 53 

There was, however, one undeniable difference between artistic and real 
life bodies. Whereas art is long, the real bodies exemplifying physical perfec- 
tion, were, of course, perishable. Pindar's odes capture the fleeting moments of 
an ideal physical state as well as those of victory. The very transience of the ideal 
body is made all the more poignant by the less than perfect bodies that sur- 
round it. This phenomenon is foregrounded in boxing - and not in other 
Olympic sports such as the discus or running - by the fact that while the 
processes of training are all about perfecting the body, and while at the moment 
of triumph, the body may move beautifully, the sport itself is all about damag- 
ing (and making ugly) the body. 54 Apollonian form could only temporarily con- 
tain Dionysian energy. The odd exception only serves to prove the rule. Dio 
Chrysostom praises Melancomas - 'although boxing was his speciality, he 

Etruscan engraved 
bronze; probably 
Polydeuces training 
with a punch bag, 
with Amycus to his 
right; late fourth 
century bc. 

remained as free from marks as any of the 
runners' - while, much later, the thought of 
'pretty boy' Janiro's unmarked face fuels 
Jake La Motta's paranoia in Martin Scors- 
ese's Raging Bull. 55 

The damaged body of the boxer appeared 
in literature and art as early as its beautiful 
counterpart. A popular model for later writ- 
ers, Theocritus's version of the mythical 
fight between Polydeuces and Amycus in 
the Idylls (third century bc) was based on 
real fights he had seen in the stadium. His 
account is alert to technical detail and strat- 
egy, but perhaps even more memorable are 
his graphic descriptions of the wounds that 
fighters carry and inflict. 56 While searching 
for the legendary golden fleece, Castor and 
Polydeuces - sons of Leda and Zeus, and 
brothers of Helen of Troy- are shipwrecked 
on Bebrycia. There, in a grove, Polydeuces, 

an Olympic champion, encounters Amycus, the King of the Bebryces, brother 

of the Cyclops and 'a giant of a man' (illus. 6): 

He was an awesome spectacle: His ears were thickened 

By blows from leather mitts, and his huge chest and broad back swelled 

Like the iron flesh of a hammered statue. Where his shoulders and hard arms 

Met, the muscles jutted out like rounded boulders, polished smooth 

By the whirling onrush of a winter torrent. 

One thing leads to another and soon the 'son of Zeus' has challenged the 
aggressive and inhospitable 'son of Poseidon' to a fight, the loser agreeing to 
become the winner's slave. The description that follows relishes the damage 
done to 'this huge / Mound of a man': 

A loud cheer rose from the heroes, when they saw the ugly wounds 
Around Amycus' mouth and jaw, and his eyes narrowed to slits in his 
Swollen face. . . 

Another punch and Amycus's nose is skinned; a few more and his face is 
'smashed' into 'a dreadful pulp. / His sweating flesh collapsed, and his colossal 
form shrank in on itself. Finally, Polydeuces finishes off the fight with a blow 
to his opponent's mouth, head and left temple ('The bone cracked open, and the 
dark blood spurted out'). With Amycus lying 'near to death', Polydeuces, clear- 
skinned and with limbs enlarged', walks away. 57 He lets his opponent live. 58 

The contest between modern Greek speed, skill and 'guile', and mythic bulk has 
proved unsatisfyingly one-sided. 59 The main purpose of Theocritus's description 
seems to be to dwell on the damage done, a purpose not unheard-of in sub- 
sequent representations of pugilism. 

Not all depictions of a boxer's injuries are marked by such gruesome relish. 
Many are simply documentary; vase paintings often depict blood streaming 
from the boxer's nose as well as from cuts on his cheeks. A more sophisticated 
realism can be found in the fourth-century statue of a battered boxer, some- 
times known as 'The Pugilist at Rest' (illus. 7). 61 In a 1993 short story of that 
title, the American writer Thorn Jones describes it: 

The statue depicts a muscular athlete approaching his middle age. He 
has a thick beard and a full head of curly hair. In addition to the telltale 
broken nose and cauliflower ears of a boxer, the pugilist has the slanted, 
drooping brows that bespeak broken nerves. Also, the forehead is piled 
with scar tissue . . . 

The pugilist is sitting on a rock with his forearms balanced on his 
thighs. That he is seated and not pacing implies that he has been 
through all this many times before. It appears that he is conserving his 
strength. His head is turned as if he were looking over his shoulder - as 
if someone had just whispered something to him. It is in this that the 
'art' of the sculpture is conveyed to the viewer. Could it be that some- 
one has just summoned him to the arena? There is a slight look of 
befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear . . . Beside the 
deformities on his noble face, there is also the suggestion of weariness 
and philosophical resignation. 62 

The sculpture is notable for the acute detail in its rendering of wounds both 
long-accumulated and from the immediate fight. Scars are visible all over the 
body but especially on the face, the nose is broken, the right eye swollen. More- 
over, the bronze statue has red copper inlaid in order to indicate fresh facial 
wounds and blood that has dripped down on to the right arm and thigh. 
Attention is also drawn to the athlete's tangled hair, his finger and toenails, 
weary face and sagging muscle. 'No other work of art from antiquity,' writes 
Harris 'takes us into the stadium with such intimacy as this statue.' 63 

The destruction of the boxer's body, and in particular his face, also provides 
the basis of much gruesome humour in Lucilius's debunking epigrams: 

Your head, Apollophanes, has become a sieve, or the lower edge of a 
worm-eaten book, all exactly like ant-holes, crooked and straight . . . 
But go on boxing without fear, for even if you are struck on the head you 
will have the marks you have - you can't have more. 64 

With loss of face comes loss of identity: 

The Pugilist at Rest, 
also known as the 
Terme Boxer, bronze 
copy, 1st century 
ad, of a signed 
sculpture by 


When Ulysses after twenty years came safe to his home, Argos the dog 
recognized his appearance when he saw him, but you, Stratophon, after 
boxing for four hours, have become not only unrecognizable to dogs 
but to the city. If you will trouble to look at your face in a glass, you will 
say on your oath, 'I am not Stratophon. 5 


Narcissus died because he fell in love his own reflected image. By this reckoning, 
however, the vanity of boxers is likely to prove short-lived: 

Having such a mug, Olympicus, go not to a fountain nor look in any 
transparent water, for you, like Narcissus, seeing your face clearly, will 
die, hating yourself to the death. 66 

While ancient literature and art have provided models for subsequent depic- 
tions of the boxer as an exemplar of either statuesque beauty or grotesque injury 
(often contrasted as the ideal and the real), it is worth remembering that the 
figure that most appealed to aficionados was neither. Philostratus notes that 
while the best fighters have small bellies, 'such people are light and have good 
respiration', a big-bellied boxer also has a certain advantage, 'for such a belly 
hinders blows at the face.' 67 


The body was never, of course, merely a sign of temporal vulnerability and meta- 
physical dissolution. The palaestra was also the setting for homoerotic admir- 
ation and seduction, where the vulnerable as well as the statuesque body proved 

When Menecharmus, Anticles's son, won the boxing match, I crowned 
him with ten soft fillets, and thrice I kissed him all dabbled with blood 
as he was, but the blood was sweeter to me than myrrh. 68 

Although most writing about exercise focuses on men, women also used gym- 
nasia and, in Greece, participated in women's games. 69 This fuelled heterosex- 
ual fantasies, particularly among nostalgic Romans. One of Ovid's Heroides, a 
series of imaginary letters from mythical figures to their lovers, is a letter from 
Paris to Helen. In it he describes the power of her beauty and imagines Theseus 
coming upon her competing in ihepalaestra, 'a naked maiden with naked men'. 
'I revere his act, I can only wonder / why he ever let you be returned.' 70 Another 
Augustan love poet, Propertius, also evokes Helen in recalling the glory days of 
Spartan athletics. Particularly commendable was the Spartan practice of having 
naked men and women competing together. Propertius waxes lyrical about 
naked women 'covered in dust' at the finishing-post, and with swords strapped 
to 'snow-white thighs'. Even the binding of 'arms with thongs for boxing' 
excites him, and he imagines two bare-breasted Amazons resembling Pollux 
and Castor '(One soon to be prize boxer, the other horseman)/ Between whom 
Helen with bare nipples took up arms.' Roman women, in contrast, pay 'boring 
attention to perfumed hair'. 71 

If pugilism had its erotic qualities, erotic love could also be seen as a poten- 
tially pugilistic activity: 


Bring water, bring wine, O boy, and bring me the flowery 
Crowns. Bring them, since I am indeed boxing against Eros! 

Whoever challenges Eros to a match 

Like a boxer fist-to-fist, he is out of his wits. 

(Sophocles) 72 

Multiple contests are possible: the lover struggles against the conventional re- 
sistance of the beloved; rival lovers compete; the lover's desire struggles for ex- 
pression. Boxing might even be easier than love. In another epigram by Lucilius, 
sexual yielding is more devastating than any acknowledgment of defeat in the 

Cleombrotos ceased to be a pugilist, but afterwards married and now 
has at home all the blows of the Isthmian and Nemean games, a pug- 
nacious old woman hitting as hard as in the Olympian fights, and he 
dreads his own house more than he ever dreaded the ring. Whenever 
he gets his wind, he is beaten with all the strokes known in every match 
to make him pay her his debt; and if he pays it, he is beaten again. 73 

But love and pugilism are not only comparable as amateur sports; in some ways 
the analogy works better on the professional level. Thomas F. Scanlon notes 
that athletes and courtesans are paired in many poems, and describes a fifth- 
century bc column-krater which places on opposite sides, and in near-identical 
poses, an athlete and a courtesan. 'The pun may be interpreted on several 
levels,' he writes: 'she is "athletic"; he is a "courtesan" whose prizes are her 
payment; both place a premium on the beauty of the body; both possess 
erotic attraction.' 74 

In the classical era, then, boxing was the literal or metaphoric subject of a 
great variety of representations, many of which will recur in the chapters which 
follow. More often than not, whether it is Homer describing the contest be- 
tween Epeios and Euryalos, or Aristotle defining courage, or Pindar the function 
of poetry, or Lucilius marriage, the representations turn on a violence which is 
at once actual and symbolic. It is the inextricable mixture in pugilism of high 
decorum and low cunning, of beauty and damage, of rhetoric and bodily fluids, 
which has made it for so long and so productively a way to imagine conflict. 


The English Golden Age 

There is some evidence, from thirteenth-century legal records and fourteenth- 
century psalters, that sports resembling wrestling, cudgelling and boxing existed 
in Britain in the Middle Ages (illus. 8). 1 These references, however, are fleeting; 
fighting with hands and sticks was a plebeian rather than an aristocratic activity, 
and as such did not feature in medieval art and literature to the same extent as 
sports such as jousting, archery or hunting. By the sixteenth century, British box- 
ing's Greek origins had been largely forgotten and if the sport was considered at 
all, it was grouped with other rowdy rural pastimes such as cock-fighting and bear- 
baiting; all were outlawed under the Puritan government of Cromwell. 2 When 
the Restoration brought a relaxation of public morality, many traditional rural 
sports became popular in the expanding cities, 'supported by city nobles, local 
squires migrating to the commercial centers, and growing numbers of working- 
class men.' 3 In the cities these sports began to change. Between 1500 and 1800, 
Peter Burke notes, 'there was a gradual shift taking place from the more sponta- 
neous and participatory forms of entertainment towards the more formally-organ- 
ised and commercialised spectator sports, a shift which was, of course, to go much 
further after 1800'. 4 Samuel Pepys's diary for 5 August 1660 notes (in one short 
paragraph) a trip to the doctor to fetch an ointment for his sick wife, dinner at 
Westminster, attending Common Prayer at St Margaret's church, and, undoubt- 
edly the highlight of his day, 'a fray' at Westminster stairs between 'Mynheer 
Clinke, a Dutchman, that was at Hartlib's wedding, and a waterman, which made 
good sport'. 5 

The first boxing-match recorded in a newspaper, The Protestant Mercury , 
took place in 1681 in the presence of the Duke of Albemarle, with the winner, a 
butcher, already recognized 'the best at that exercise in England'. 6 The trades- 
men who most depended on upper-body strength - watermen, butchers and 
blacksmiths - were the ones most frequently associated with pugilism in the days 
before the sport became 'scientific'. 

In 1719, James Figg opened an indoor arena, or, as he called it, Amphi- 
theatre', and school near Adam and Eve Court off London's Oxford Road (now 
Oxford Street), where he taught boxing along with quarterstaff, backsword and 




Two men wrestling, 
flanked by 
spectators, one 
of whom holds a 
pole surmounted 
by a cockerel, 
a prize for the 
winner; Bas-de-page 
scene, detail from 
the Queen Mary 
Psalter, c. 1310-20. 

printmaker, Figg's 
Card, c. 1794. 

cudgelling. A promotional card (once attributed to Hogarth) was distributed at 
Figg's booth at Southwark Fair, and his advertisements promised that the booth 
was 'fitted up in a most commodious manner for the better reception of gentle- 
men' (illus. 9). Samuel Johnson's uncle, Andrew, ran a similar booth at Smithfield 
meat market. 7 

Although boxing matches were frequently advertised as 'trials of manhood', 
women as well as men could often be found fighting at the booths and bear- 
garden (illus. 10). 8 In August 1723, The London Journal noted that 'scarce a week 
passes but we have a Boxing-Match at the Bear-Garden between women'. 9 It 
would not have been unusual, while browsing the newspaper, to come upon a 
challenge and reply such as this (from 1722): 


I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, having had some words with 
Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me 
upon the stage, and box me for three guineas, each woman holding half 
a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops the money to 
lose the battle. 


I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate-market, hearing of the resoluteness of 
Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows 
than words - desiring home blows, and from her no favour; she may 
expect a good thumping! 10 

Most reports of women's fighting (all are written by men) focused on the scanty 
dress rather than the skill of the participants. Foreign visitors to London were 
particularly intrigued. Recalling his visit to London in 1710, von Uffenbach 
described a fight between two women 'without stays and in nothing but a shift', 
while Martin Nogiie's Voyages etAventures (1728) reported matches between girls 
and women 'stripped to the waist'; William Hickey, meanwhile, described com- 
ing upon two women boxing near Drury Lane in 1749, 'their faces entirely cov- 
ered in blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their bodies'. 11 
Pierre Jean Grosley was particularly outraged to see a fight between a man and 
a woman in Holborn: 'I was witness to five or six bouts of the combat; which sur- 
prised me the more, as the woman had, upon her left arm, an infant a year or 
two old, which was so far from crying out, as is natural for children to do even 
in circumstances of less danger, that it did not so much as seem to knit its brow, 
but appeared to attend to a lesson of what it was one day to practice itself.' 12 

The quality of English fighting women received patriotic endorsement in 
the anonymous Sal Dab Giving Monsieur a Receipt in Full of 1766 (illus. 11). Sal 
bloodies the nose of a dandyish Frenchman who, despite his general hopeless- 
ness, has managed to lay bare her bosoms; another woman, meanwhile, applies 
a lobster to his naked bottom. A pub-sign above advertises 'The Good Woman'. 13 


Butler Clowes (after 
JohnCollett), The 
Female Bruisers, 1770, 

Boxing began to flourish in the early eighteenth century, at the expense of 
other sports such as quart erstaff and backsword, by attracting the support of the 
wealthy and powerful. In 1723 a ring was erected in Hyde Park 'by order of his 
Majesty' George I, and the next champion of note, a former Thames waterman 
called John Broughton, secured the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland. The 
early patrons supported their fighters in training and wagered huge sums on their 
fights; The Gentleman's Magazine reported in one instance that 'many thousands 
depended' on the outcome of a fight. 14 Without the eighteenth-century love of 
gambling, argues Dennis Brailsford, 'pugilism . . . would have been unthinkable', 
and with large bets came a need for rules to limit disputes. 15 The great Enlighten- 
ment project of systemization and law-making thus extended to pugilism, with the 
first written rules of prize-fighting published under Broughton's name in 1743. l6 
Although the rules were intended simply to regulate his own establishment, they 
were soon widely adopted. 'No one sport', claims Brailsford, 'owed more for its be- 
ginnings to one man than boxing owed to him' (illus. 12). ly 

The rules specified how a round would begin and end; how the seconds and 
umpires should conduct themselves; how the money should be divided; and 
that a fight was over when one man could not be brought back to the scratch line 
in the centre of the ring. After 1746, English gamblers adapted the notion of 


Sal Dab Giving 
Monsieur a Receipt in 
Full, 1766, 

horse handicapping and began dividing boxers into light, middle, and heavy- 
weight classes (there was, however, only one 'champion' who tended to be the 
heaviest). By 1838, these rules had developed into the 29 English Prize Ring 
Rules. Wrestling holds, such as the cross-buttocks, remained a part of boxing 
until the Queensberry rules abolished them in the 1860s. 

Champion from 1734 to 1750, Broughton promoted bareknuckle bouts at 
his Amphitheatre near Marylebone Fields, including Battles Royal in which a 
champion took on up to seven challengers at a time. The fights took place on an 
unfenced stage with several rows of seating for gentlemen; these rows were sep- 
arated from the platform by a gap where the other spectators stood, their eyes 
level with the pugilists' feet. 


Broughton's Rules, 
16 August 1743. 



t TlUT 1 hpur* d t V«d b. [rulknJ in ih- 

■MUk nl ihr JiaJs-r. tnj flfl ttcfj fruit t.t.11 
'fit* 1 flit, or t*in ( juricJ fnim rrw null. «,h 

Jwral n [o tain)j hit Mm 10 tilt fldc ur' Ihr 
i^uiir^inJ pkjii! him opfufiir tji ePic *iphn r ir.,r 
nil rhty tn fufly 41 ih? Lim->,.i ihiH .n 

bv la"iyl Iik yn* ui llnL* ■■ Erie, othrf 

II TfUl.mOfltef t* eMKW «!)■ f Hfjmiri, thrnmr 
1 Mm Ln jrrrr i lilt, if I he Snwkj don not brind 
h« Mui 10 tin Car ol tJv tjin, niijim the If Kt 
of Ju'i 1 mirwor. be 111 jIP b* Jflips J J tiidn >1 in. 

III 1 jut mnrrj nsiii> fUjilc, IW JtfHMI WHSKTfT 

rV jil b* up-.11 <he Tii£r. imimiff die i'n n. n<j 

ihru fui ixiJ* 1 iIil ImiL ■ uk I ik It j ihl-, ri, £ J ,|i |,t. L , 

burin, m.if* ihn In ilic liilri, Mr. fliuujJiEun 
ft illcMiiJ E11 he ujwm iheh'Eii;* rihVr^pv dviiViini, 
ip J n> litin IjxflckBiiLPi in ptrfrii^j; su- iU .1 | . 

^cd ilnmk bedoo. rKinnnrlu^ in rb\ IU:|lt, 

I whuctET prctcndi ti* iniiinp: 1 1ic4c Ruli'% |n 

Mvrtvd imrHt'Siiri.11 <wi or fht-Jumlt. hi in 

Jv 11 Eut|jii 4J1E ?iii|grM (lmhiai trie Uiunjvf. irii 

. ilfif>F<J, furuit ibi lit-M 

IV, llin ru C3kimjnan br ilrcmci] officii, uhkli 

he full cmLnjr, up to rhc linr ill live lirniwd Elm*, 
Lif rhii hri o»n SccptmI dccUm l»rr* lieiEen Ni 
JiniMulimjbnlJiiwiUlu ill huntil'i Adwrtm 
tut; qiKiNini. at jJkn^ run i* fiitow 

V. Th*l k MvLmCiIa, th« « "»n>n,t frjin ' 

" .fd. <hf ilw Mfrwj niifn. »hith ib>3l t* 
puMimlt Jn bJfd upun Dm Siifi'i natmilllnJuldlBf 

im rfiijli ^^^c^^l;p^H Hi> Iht iiKHiftfy 

'ITiid 1-t p«TL'i 
1 l'i I'j ir..-.f.i l> lKi4l,o* Cvnlirtft. oft tbr S< jp.<!iv * c 
fmniv ^nirHip- crt^ £in , l* fT1 * B i p^'^nl <«%» l"mprr«> 
nhm lluH inMuExIl JmJi ill IVIjjmm ihil rn>) 
j'.i. dt.up (hf ItinV, i-*J ii '-K fikn l'nf-% 

> inn .1 jji'L-r. ill. En:! ( i: f in pn JbviV , ihi.J, 

«lv» t» m Jniffnims 11 

I'll. 'I'hir nu prrlitn ik ni hn hn .Idiiilir^ »Twn 
fa ■■ Jmm,«c tafBlmr! b) IK Idbi. ik- lnulxt. 
<v *n.j' -pan hcbi* epv mini 1 mjn ,tn hit ln<vi 
i.i Ir eklLimll-J nAtnn 


Broughton capitalized on the popularity of prize-fighting with the upper 
classes by offering tuition for 'persons of quality and distinction' at his school 
in the Haymarket. What was offered differed from prize-fighting in many 
respects: the exclusion of women, the absence of gambling, and the lack of 
police intervention. The most important difference, however, was the style 
of fighting involved, and in particular the introduction of large padded 
gloves, or mufflers. Broughton's advertisement promised, in order that 
'persons of quality and distinction may not be debarred from entering a 
course of those lectures': 


they will be given the utmost tenderness, for which reason mufflers are 
provided that will effectively secure them for the inconveniency of black 
eyes, broken jaws and bloody noses. 18 

Sparring with mufflers was different enough from bareknuckle prize-fighting 
to be deemed a separate sport, albeit one that was parasitic on the rough glam- 
our of its ancestor. The journalist Pierce Egan described sparring as 'a mock 
encounter; but, at the same time, a representation, and, in most cases an exact 
one, of real fighting' (which of course remained the Platonic Form). 19 Whether 
or not he attended prize-fights, a modern urban gentleman who exercised 
gently with his padded gloves could believe himself in touch with an older, and 
somehow more authentic, England. 

'fists AND THE MAN I sing' 20 

Broughton advertised his academy with a quotation from the Aeneid, urging 
that Britons who 'boast themselves inheritors of the Greek and Roman virtues, 
should follow their example and [encourage] conflicts of this magnanimous 
kind'. James Faber's classically styled portrait of the fighter was accompanied 
by a verse comparing him to the 'athletic heroes' celebrated by Pindar. 21 Such 
connections were not unusual. For over a hundred years classical precedent 
had been used to describe, and justify, British pugilism. In 1612, Robert Dover 
reinvented the annual Cotswolds sports as 'Olimpick Games' in an anti-Puri- 
tan gesture and an attempt to marry English country and classical traditions. 22 
In 1636 a group of Dover's friends, including Ben Jonson and Michael Dray- 
ton, produced the Annalia Dubrensia, a collection of poems celebrating the 
games as a revival of the 'Golden Age's Glories', and defending their 'harm- 
lesse merriment' from Puritan censure. John Stratford's poem lists many class- 
ical sports including boxing (he alludes to Virgil's Eutellus, who 'at Caestus, 
had the best / In mighty strength surpassing all the rest') before noting that 
'the old world's sports' are 'now transferred over / Into our Cotswold by thee, 
worthy Dover.' 23 

Poetry itself is understood as a kind of sport, and sport as a rival to poetry, in 
another poem of this period, John Suckling's 'A Session of the Poets' (1646). Apollo 
must decide which poet deserves to be Laureate. Each comes forward to compete 
until it is the turn of Suckling himself. Apollo is told that he is not present: 

That of all men living he cared not for't, 
He loved not the Muses as well as his sport; 

And prized black eyes, or a lucky hit 

At bowls, above all the Trophies of wit . . . 24 

Apollo is not amused, and issues a fine. 


A desire to evoke classical boxing led Figg, and Broughton after him, to de- 
scribe their schools as 'amphitheatres', and Jonathan Richardson to depict Figg 
in a 1714 portrait as 'the Gladiator ad Vivum'. Travellers on the Grand Tour 
began to collect classical and Renaissance sculptures of boxers, and these were 
carefully studied by modern artists. 25 But emulation soon led to (mock heroic) 
competition and to frequent claims that English sport was best. In Moses 
Browne's 'A Survey of the Amhitheatre' (1736), the mild English version comes 
out ahead of the 'dread' Roman. In Rome, fighters 'met to kill, or be killed, / 
But ours to have their pockets filled.' 26 John Byrom's 1725 'Extempore Verses 
Upon a Tryal of Skill between the Two Great Masters of the Noble Science of 
Defence, Messrs. Figg and Sutton' develops, at some length, the contention that 
modern English boxers (and books) have surpassed their ancient models: 

Now, after such Men, who can bear to be told 

Of your Roman and Greek puny Heroes of Old? 

To compare such poor Dogs as Alcides, and Theseus 

To Sutton and Figg would be very facetious. 

Were Hector himself, with Apollo to back him, 

To encounter with Sutton - zooks, how he would thwack him! 

Or Achilles, tho' old Mother Thetis had dipt him, 

With Figg - odds my Life, how he would have unript him! 

By the mid-eighteenth century battles of boxers and books such as this had be- 
come commonplace (although sadly not all rhymed 'Theseus' with 'facetious', 
or asked whether Figg should 'be pair'd with a Cap-a pee Roman, / Who scorn'd 
any Fence but a jolly Abdomen?). 27 

Christopher Anstey's The Patriot (1767) - A Pindaric Address to Lord Buck- 
horse', the nom de guerre of Broughton's sparring partner, John Smith - burlesqued 
the tendency to describe prize-fighters in such elevated terms. Something of a 
classical hodge-podge, it intersperses quotations from Homer, Theocritus, Virgil, 
Lucian and others with calls for aid from the muses: 

Bid coo quit her blest Abode, 

And speed her Flight to Oxford-Road, 

Adore the Theatre of broughton, 

And kiss the Stage his Lordship fought on . . . 

Buckhorse's 'Patriotic Virtues' are celebrated at a time when 'Albas warlike Sons 
of Yore' have been displaced by 'Meek Cardinals' wielding undue influence upon 
the 'Tender Minds of Youth'. Buckhorse is called upon to found a Cambridge col- 
lege, and thus 'form a Plan of Education / To mend the Morals of the Nation.' 28 
Eleven years previously, in 1756, Anstey had (anonymously) published a little- 
known work entitled Memoirs of the Noted Buckhorse, a picaresque satire of the 
metropolitan world of 'Bucks, Bloods and Jemmys' into which, he imagines, the 


boxer is initiated. 'He learned to swear very prettily, lie with a good Grace, flatter 
and deceive, promise anything, and perform, - as great People generally do.' 29 
Much of the humour here, as in The Patriot, comes from imagining the working- 
class prize-fighter as a Lord, a society figure who wields influence as well as his 
fists. After two volumes of adventures, the Memoirs end with Buckhorse, tired 
of waiting for his friends to secure him a position in the Army, resolving to 'turn 
patriot'. This allows an extended joke on a version of patriotism that entails 
'rail[ing] against the Ministry' and 'seasoning] his Discourses with Bribery, 
Corruption, and Hanover.^ 

'no weapons but what nature had furnished him with' 

Henry Fielding began Tom Jones in 1747, the year that Broughton opened his 
academy, and the novel reflects contemporary interest in the sport and its clas- 
sical origins. 31 Broughton's advertisement is even quoted in a footnote. 32 Field- 
ing's take on the subject is characteristically 'prosai-comi-epic'. 33 Chapter Eight 
of Book One, for example, is entitled A battle sung by the muses in the Home- 
rican style, and which none but the classical reader can taste'. The battle sung 
features 'our Amazonian heroine', Molly Seagrim, against many opponents, 
most notably Goody Brown. Fielding's exploitation of the comic potential of 
women's boxing had begun in 1741, when, in Shamela, he has Henrietta Maria 
Honora Andrews end a letter to her daughter with the apology, 'You will excuse 
the shortness of this scroll; for I have sprained my right hand, with boxing three 
new made officers. - Tho' to my comfort, I beat them all.' 34 

In the case of Molly Seagrim and Goody Brown, we are treated to a full 
description of women at 'fisticuff-war'. The women begin, cautiously, by merely 
tearing at each other's hair, but soon move onto each other's clothes so that 'in 
a very few minutes they were both naked to the middle.' 35 Goody has the advan- 
tage of having no bosom; her breasts are 'an ancient parchment, upon which 
one might have drummed a considerable while without doing her any damage'. 
Molly is 'differently formed in those parts' and therefore susceptible to 'a fatal 
blow had not the lucky arrival of Tom Jones at this point put an immediate end 
to the bloody scene'. Tom now fights Goody (perhaps, Fielding suggests, he for- 
got she was a woman; perhaps he couldn't tell) and the surrounding mob. 

For Fielding, the language of boxing was as open to mockery as the lan- 
guage of classical poetry. In Joseph Andrews (1742), we are momentarily anxious 
for Parson Adams when his opponent concludes '(to use the Language of fight- 
ing) that he had done his Business; or, in the Language of Poetry, that he had sent 
him to the Shades below; in plain English, that he was dead'} 6 Plain English is of 
course the language of the narrator, and the novel - Fielding's 'new province of 
writing' 37 - which may include, and absorb, the mock-heroic and the colloquial, 
but whose character is, above all, democratic, excluding no reader by resort to 
the language of the coterie. Plain, and reasonable, English would have prevented 
yet another altercation in Tom Jones: when the classically educated school- 


teacher, Partridge, uses the phrase 'non sequitur', the sergeant mistakes it for an 
insult - 'None of your outlandish linguo ... I will not sit still and hear the cloth 
abused' - and he formally challenges Partridge to fight. 38 

As the novel progresses, Tom has many opportunities to display his boxing 
skill, and employs all the latest techniques including 'one of those punches in the 
guts which, though the spectators at Broughton's Ampitheatre have such ex- 
quisite delight in seeing them, convey little pleasure in the feeling'. 39 One oppo- 
nent is even convinced he must be a professional prize-fighter: 'I'll have nothing 

more to do with you; you have been upon the stage, or I'm d nably mistaken', 

to which the narrator adds: 'such was the agility and strength of our hero that 
he was perhaps a match for one of the first-rate boxers, and could with great 
ease have beaten all the muffled graduates of Mr. Broughton's school'. 40 

Tom is superior to the 'muffled graduates' because of his willingness to fight 
bare-fisted; Bonnell Thornton and George Colman later mocked that 'most of 
our young fellows gave up the gauntlet for scented gloves; and loathing the mut- 
ton fists of vulgar carmen and porters, they rather chose to hang their hands in 
a sling, to make them white and delicate as a lady's'. 41 More fundamentally, fight- 
ing for Tom is a matter of 'appetite' rather than education. Tom has many 
appetites - for fighting, for food, for drink, but mainly for sex. These are seen to 
be equally natural, and often one appetite leads to another. Broughton promised 
that learning to box would bring his pupils success with women, evoking his 
exhibition sparring partner, the famously ugly Buckhorse, whose 'ruling passions' 
were said to be 'love and boxing, in both of which he was equally formidable; 
. . . neither nymph nor bruiser could withstand the violence of his attack, for it 
was generally allowed he conquered both by the strength of his members, and the 
rigour of his parts'. 42 Christopher Anstey's novel Memoirs of the Noted Buckhorse 
also gets much mileage out of its hero's reputation as a ladies' man. Many women 
praise his 'manly Beauties' and three marry him. 43 But Tom needs no lessons in 
either love or boxing. Consider, to take only one of many examples, the 'Battle of 
Upton', which takes place at the inn where Tom and a 'fair companion' are lodg- 
ing. In this case, the key intervention is that of the chambermaid, Susan, 'as two- 
handed a wench (according to the phrase) as any in the country'. 44 

Fights in Fielding's novels are often the means by which moral worth is re- 
vealed. He disagreed strongly with Samuel Richardson's view that virtue is a state 
of mind, arguing that the Actions of Men seem to be the justest Interpreters of 
their Thoughts, and the truest Standards by which we may judge them'. 45 Many 
fights begin with the excuse of defending feminine honour. Parson Adams, in 
Joseph Andrews, for example, refutes an argument about the nature of courage in 
a single blow by instinctively leaping to the defence of a young woman in trou- 
ble. Adams, the first muscled if not muscular Christian, proceeds with 'no 
weapons but what Nature had furnished him with', and, it seems, some surrep- 
titiously acquired technical knowledge. 46 But given that the women are often as 
adept as the men with their fists - Mr Partridge is certainly no match for Mrs 
Partridge - many of the situations presented seem primarily to furnish excuses 


for a good punch-up. Fighting (like sex) is ubiquitous in Fielding's novels; some- 
thing that English men and women just like to do. It is an activity natural to all 
classes and all professions - chambermaids, squires, landladies, schoolteachers, 
army officers and the aptly named Reverend Mr. Thwackum all pitch in. 47 The 
very ubiquity of fights throughout the novels is comically conservative, as if Field- 
ing is asking, 'what else can you expect from human nature?' 48 There may be lots 
of bleeding, and preferably some female nudity, but the conclusion of a boxing 
match, for Fielding, is also comic, and conservative in its effect (a jovial hand- 
shake with the balance of power unchanged), rather than tragic and radical (epit- 
omized by the deadly Jacobite duel). 49 After knocking out Blifil, for example, 
Jones immediately reaches over to see if he is alright, and soon Blifil is back on 
his feet. Fielding interrupts his narrative to talk about the significance of this 
incident with a seriousness that is evident from his plain English: 

Here we cannot suppress a pious wish that all quarrels were to be de- 
cided by those weapons only, with which Nature, knowing what is 
proper for us, hath supplied us; and that cold iron was to be used in 
digging no bowels, but those of the earth. Then would war, the pastime 
of monarchs, be almost inoffensive, and battles between great armies 
might be fought at the particular desire of several ladies of quality, who, 
together, with the kings themselves, might be actual spectators of the 
conflict. Then might the field be this moment well strewn with human 
carcasses, and the next, the dead men, or infinitely the greatest part of 
them, might get up . . . 5 ° 

Some years later the prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza approvingly cited this pas- 
sage, and used it to justify his profession. 51 

Broughton advertised boxing as a 'truly British Art', claiming that its study 
would prove an antidote to 'foreign Effeminacy ', as well as, of course, enabling 
practitioners to be able 'to boast themselves Inheritors of the Greek and Roman 
Virtues'. Broughton, and his followers, seemed to find no contradiction in these 
two claims. 'Britishness' was, however, as Christopher Johnson notes, a 'highly 
contentious' notion in 1747, only a year after the bloody Battle of Culloden which 
had ended the Jacobite Rebellion; French troops had supported the Young Pre- 
tender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, against the Hanoverian King George 11 (for whom 
both Tom Jones, and Broughton's patron, the Duke of Cumberland, fought). 
Exactly contemporary with Tom Jones, William Hogarth's The March toFinchley 
(1749) memorializes the soldiers who had travelled north to meet the Jacobites 
three years earlier. The exuberant crowd that Hogarth depicts seems, as Jenny 
Uglow puts it, to be celebrating a public holiday rather than facing a national 
emergency. On the left of the scene, a crowd has gathered outside the boxing 
booth of Broughton's rival, George Taylor, to watch a fight. Uglow interprets 
this as representing either 'the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel now trans- 
lated into civil war' or 'the natural fighting spirit of the people, cheered on by an 


excited crowd'. 52 To define Britishness, as Broughton did, in the pseudo-military 
vocabulary of 'championism' (a concoction of pugnacious Protestanism, egali- 
tarianism, national pride and moral righteousness) would, presumably, not 
have found favour with many northern and Catholic Britons. Championism 
represented a quite particular form of Englishness. 

Throughout the eighteenth century, French visitors to England had 
observed the 'well-known taste of the English for combats of men and animals, 
and for those horrible scenes of slaughter and blood, which other nations have 
banished from their theatres.' 'Any Thing that Looks like Fighting, is delicious 
to an Englishman,' concluded Misson in 1719. 53 After a visit to London in 1766, 
during which he seemed to trip over 'street-scufflers' at every corner, Pierre Jean 
Grosley recorded that boxing was a 'species of combat' not merely 'congenial to 
the character of the English' but 'inherent in English blood'. 54 

While Grosley was appalled by the ubiquity of street-fighting, and the 
casualness with which it was undertaken, James Boswell relished a scuffle. His 
diary entry for 13 June 1763 describes a trip to Vauxhall Gardens as 'quite deli- 
cious' not despite, but because of, a 'quarrel between a gentleman and a waiter': 

A great crowd gathered round and roared out, A ring-a ring,' which is 
the signal for making room for the parties to box it out. My spirits rose, 
and I was exerting myself with much vehemence. At last the constable 
came to quell the riot. I seized his baton in a good-humoured way which 
made him laugh, and I rapped upon the people's heads, bawling out, 
'Who will resist the Peace? A ring, a ring.' 55 

Boswell's enthusiasm recalls that displayed by Samuel Pepys a hundred years 
earlier. He obviously had a fondness for critical, and social, pugilists as well. 
Boswell's portrait of Samuel Johnson depicts a man who, while hot-tempered, 
is quick to reconcile and apologize. Pierce Egan relates the tale of Johnson's hav- 
ing a 'regular set-to with an athletic brewer's servant, who had insulted him in 
Fleet-street' - he 'gave the fellow a complete milling in a few minutes' - and con- 
cludes that Johnson was 'striking proof of pugilism being a national trait'. Mrs 
Thrale describes him as 'very conversant in the art of attack and defense by box- 
ing, which science he learned from his uncle Andrew'. 56 More importantly, 
Johnson included definitions (illustrated by literary quotations) of 'box' and 
'boxer' and 'to box' in The Dictionary of the English Language (1755). 57 

In 1750, an ill-prepared Broughton was finally defeated and blinded by a 
Norfolk butcher, Jack Slack. His patron, the Duke of Cumberland, who lost a 
£10,000 bet, accused Broughton of throwing the fight and angrily withdrew his 
support. Within months, Broughton's Amphitheatre closed and prize-fighting 
was officially, if not effectively, outlawed. A more striking demonstration of the 
dependence of the sport on aristocratic patronage can hardly be imagined. Con- 
tests continued to be staged, but gradually moved away from the metropolitan 
centres. 58 Ten years earlier, as Paul Whitehead had observed in 'The Gymnasiad', 


anti-boxing legislation had been 'dormant'. Now bailiffs woke up to its existence 
and fighters were increasingly likely to be arrested. 59 

In 1754, 'Mr Town' (Bonnell Thornton and George Colman, members of the 
satirical Nonsense Club) joshed that Broughton's defeat was a 'public calamity'. 
They imagined the 'professors of the noble art of Boxing' forming a 'kind of dis- 
banded army' and inevitably turning to crime. 'Some have been forced to exercise 
their art in knocking down passengers in dark alleys and corners; while others have 
learned to open their fists and ply their fingers in picking pockets.' 60 But not every- 
one was unhappy at the prospect of the boxing academies closing. An apprecia- 
tion of boxing was, for some, less the classless mark of an honest man, as Fielding 
had suggested, than yet another empty indulgence practised by wealthy London- 
ers. In The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), for example, Oliver Goldsmith presents the 
rakish young squire Thornhill as a corrupting influence on the innocent country 
vicar and his family. Thornhill visits his tenants frequently and 'amuses them by de- 
scribing the town, with every part of which he was particularly acquainted'. He 
even sets the vicar's two little boys to box, 'to make them sharp, as he called it'. 
Thornhill's cowardice is later revealed when he sends another brother to fight duels 
on his behalf, and he is finally declared 'as complete a villain as ever disgraced 
humanity'. 61 In 1751, Hogarth published a series of prints entitled The Four Stages 
of Cruelty, 'in the hopes of preventing in some degree the cruel treatment of poor An- 
imals' on the streets of London. The Second Stage includes a man whipping a horse 
and a sheep being beaten, and, on the wall, notices advertise cock-fighting and an 
up-coming match between George Taylor and James Field at Broughton's 
Amphitheatre. Field is also named in the last print of the series, 'The Reward of 
Cruelty' - his name is engraved above a skeleton which overlooks the dissec- 
tion of an executed criminal. Field had recently been hanged for robbery and his 
life-story was circulated in a pamphlet that ran to several editions, The Bruiser 
knock'd down. 62 Boxing had changed its meaning for Hogarth. Whereas previously 
he had presented the sport as one of many manifestations of exuberant Englishness, 
in 1751 he aligns it with the cruelties of cock-fighting, execution and dissection. 


English pugilism's revival (and, for many, the beginning of its golden age) began 
in the 1780s, when once again the highest echelons of the aristocracy, including 
the Prince of Wales, became interested in the sport. As war with France loomed, 
this was due partly to boxing's reputed association with a particularly English 
form of courage, and partly to a highly publicized series of fights between 
Richard Humphries and Daniel Mendoza. 

Daniel Mendoza's Memoirs (1816) may have been the first ghost-written 
sports autobiography. Whoever wrote it, the book provides a vivid picture not 
only of the prize-fighting world but of late eighteenth-century London life more 
generally. The story is of a man who tries to make a living in various respectable 
trades - as a greengrocer, tobacconist or glazier - but whom circumstance, 


usually involving the honour of women or Judaism, continually compels to 
resort to his fists. 

The names of Mendoza's first opponents - Harry the Coal-heaver, and Sam 
Martin, 'The Bath Butcher' - suggest their weighty force. Relatively small at 5ft 
7in and 160 pounds (he would now be classified as a middleweight), Mendoza, 
often known simply as 'the Jew', defeated them with a combination of speed, 
agility and technique. One of his 'prominent traits', noted Pierce Egan, was to 
exhaust the strength of an opponent who 'depended upon that particular cir- 
cumstance to stamp him a formidable boxer', by 'acting on the defensive till the 
assault in turn could be practised with success'. Previously, pugilistic fighting 
was somewhat static as opponents stood toe to toe and exchanged blows. It was 
considered unmanly to move, so blows were blocked rather than avoided by 
footwork. John Godfrey, for example, described Broughton's style: 

broughton steps bold and firmly in, bids a Welcome to the coming 
Blow, receives it with the guardian Arm; then with a general Summons 
of his swelling Muscles and his firm Body, seconding his Arm, and sup- 
plying it with all its Weight, pours the Pile-driving Force upon his Man. 63 

Mendoza introduced a style of fighting which relied on footwork, jabs, and 
defence rather than simply pure brute force. Although most commentators 
(including the Prince of Wales) praised his style as elegant, sophisticated and, 
perhaps most important, wonderful to watch, some complained that 'there was 
something cowardly about a fighter who frequently retreated and relied on 
superior agility and speed to win rather than standing up in true British bulldog 
style and hammering away doggedly until he or his opponent dropped'. 64 'The 
Jew', the anti-Semites said, was 'cunning'. 65 

In 1788, Mendoza embarked on a highly publicized series of contests with 
Richard Humphries, 'The Gentleman Fighter' (illus. 44). Tapping into late eight- 
eenth-century English anxieties about its burgeoning Jewish population, the 
fights attracted large crowds. Mendoza and Humphries were the first boxers 
whose careers were successfully marketed in terms of ethnic hostility. 66 Men- 
doza lost the first fight and immediately wrote to a popular newspaper com- 
plaining about his opponent's deviousness and lack of courage. Thus began a 
prolonged battle of words between the two fighters, which boosted sales of The 
World considerably, and which is reprinted in full in the Memoirs. Letter fol- 
lowed letter like punch and counterpunch, with the result that the inevitable 
rematch between the two men was a guaranteed sell-out, with both men 
profiting. Mendoza decisively won the second and third fights and became a 
celebrity; his face was reproduced on commemorative coins and beer mugs and 
his name was incorporated into the texts of contemporary plays. 67 He claimed 
the title of champion when Big Ben Brain retired in 1791 and confirmed it with 
victories over Bill Ward in 1792 and 1794. The following year, he lost the cham- 
pionship (in dubious circumstances) to John Jackson. 


One of the most interesting aspects of Mendoza's memoirs is the light it sheds 
on the commercial side of pugilism. 68 Like most prize-fighters then (and since), 
Mendoza used his high-profile victories as a springboard to other, more lucra- 
tive, enterprises - exhibitions at London's Lyceum theatre, tours of Britain and 
Ireland, and a successful boxing academy. He eventually became a publican. 69 

By 1795, according to G. M. Trevelyan, 'scientific pugilism' had become the 
'chief national interest'. 70 This is overstating things, but, in certain quarters, 
boxing had become very fashionable. Spoken of as both a 'science' and a 'noble 
art of self-defence', pugilism could be studied from books such as Mendoza's 
1787 The Art of Boxing, and numerous 'sixpenny teachers', as well as at the more 
expensive and exclusive academies in London, and beyond. Mendoza's school 
was in the City, Humphries catered particularly for the pupils of Westminster 
School, and, on gaining the title, John Jackson retired immediately to set up 
rooms in Bond Street. In 1807, the fictional narrator of Robert Southey's Letters 
from England, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, observed, in a letter on the 'Fash- 
ionables', that 'the Amateurs of Boxing . . . attend the academies of the two 
great professors Jackson and Mendoza, the Aristotle and Plato of pugilism'. 71 

A typical amateur was Joseph Moser's 1794 creation, Timothy Twig. Twig's 
adventures in modish London (related back to Wales in comic verse letters) in- 
clude the study of 'matter and motion': 'I'm deep in philosophy at the Lyceum'. 
Twig praises Mendoza, Humphries and others 'for shewing the town, / The gen- 
teel method to knock a man down.' 72 A 1788 advertisement for Humphries's 
school promised that 'Such gentlemen as are prevented by weak constitution 
from taking a lesson may be qualified for polite Assemblies with artificial Bloody 
Noses and Black Eyes' (illus. 13). Another drawing, by Rowlandson, detailed the 
'six stages of marring a face' (illus. 14). 

Wm*' >V %_'^*' *-»**t J-h* F**"* «""vtH-* tL «* «!.*-». i f-uT- n 

kl an »l*^i 1 fevJ* H- ■&] ^»J*Jl 1 Uj"J»»W U • • AH. V*. >■ M 4 h fci£ itlla) 


# _ 


School for Boxing, 




Thomas Rowland- 
son, Six Stages of 
Marring a Face, 
May 1792, etching. 

SIX S&SES <if iM.WUttG A EICE . 

The ars pugnandi had much to recommend it to the young gentleman about 
town. For a start it was an art that would 'promote health', 'give courage to the 
timid', and 'repress insolence'. But more importantly, Mendoza promised, it 
would enable 'men to stand in their own defence' (and that of their property) on 
the streets of the growing metropolis. It would provide them with the means to 
resist 'the assaults they are daily exposed to'. 73 Furthermore, it would enable 
them to defend their honour without resorting to the potentially more deadly 
practice of duelling which was, in any case, considered French. In one of the ear- 
liest published references to boxing in 1709, Richard Steele had advocated the 
use of 'wrathful Hands' as an alternative to 'that unchristian-like and bloody 
Custom of Duelling', and Fielding, as we have already seen, preferred the comic- 
conservative boxing match to the tragic and radical duel. 74 In the introduction 
to his 1816 Memoirs, Mendoza argued that if boxing were abolished, men would 
not forget their injuries but instead 'adopt other modes of revenging their 
wrongs, either by resorting to the dreadful practice of duelling, or by schemes 
of secret machinations against each other'. 75 

Finally, because it was based on natural strength and the mastery of tech- 
nique rather than the ownership of weaponry, boxing, it was claimed, would 
allow men of all classes to fight on equal terms. 'Fair play' was much spoken of 
and admired, and again considered a particularly English and democratic 
virtue. 76 In 1698 a French visitor, Henri Misson, had noted, with some surprise, 
the sight of the Duke of Grafton and his coachman 'at Fisticuffs, in the open 
street', 'the very widest Part of the Strand'. The coachman, he reports, was 
'lamb'd most horribly'. 


In France, we punish such Rascals with our Cane, and sometimes with 
the flat of our sword: but in England this is never practis'd; they use 
neither Sword nor Stick against a Man that is unarm'd: and if an unfor- 
tunate stranger (for an Englishman would never take it into his head) 
should draw his Sword upon one that had none, he'd have a hundred 
People upon him in a Moment that would perhaps lay him so flat that 
he would hardly get up again until the Resurrection. 77 

Misson notes that, 'If the Coachman is soundly drubb'd, which happens almost 
always, that goes for Payment; but if he is the Beator, the Beatee must pay the 
Money about which they quarreled.' Should his readers worry about the impli- 
cations of such seeming democracy, he adds, in a footnote, 'A Gentleman seldom 
exposes himself to such a Battel, without he is sure he's strongest.' 

Fair play was also much admired in professional contests. In 1790, during 
their final fight, Mendoza had Humphries in such a helpless state that he could 
have injured him at will, but he famously 'laid down' his opponent on the 
ground. (Egan reports this 'truth' in the face of anti-Semitic 'prejudice' which al- 
lows 'good actions' to be 'passed over'. 78 ) In an 1805 fight Hen Pearce (the Game 
Chicken) forced Jem Belcher against the ropes. At this stage of his career Belcher 
only had the use of one eye, and the crowd feared that Pearce would deliber- 
ately blind him. Instead, Pearce is supposed to have pulled back out of a punch, 
saying, 'I'll take no advantage of thee, Jem; I'll not hit thee, no, lest I hurt the 
other eye.' He repeated this behaviour in a later round, and the audience was 
lost in admiration'. 79 

'the pugilistic honour of the country was at stake' 

William Windham, a friend of Samuel Johnson and a protege of Edmund Burke, 
was elected to Parliament in 1784 and by 1792 became one of the most ardent sup- 
porters of the government's fearful and repressive legislation against 'aliens' and 
'seditious' meetings; in 1801, he opposed preliminary moves to peace with France; 
in 1806, his career peaked when he served as Secretary for War and Colonies. Wind- 
ham was also a vocal supporter of pugilism, recording attendance at more than 
twenty fights in his diary, along with regret on one occasion at letting himself 'be 
drawn by Boswell to explore . . . Wapping, instead of going when everything was 
prepared, to see the battle between Ward and Stanyard, which turned out a very 
good one'. 80 That was in 1792. Six years earlier, 'Fighting Windham' (his Eton nick- 
name) noted his first 'excursion' to a fight, between Sam Martin and Humphries, 
('Richard I think'), after a journey on which the talk was much of 'foreign wars and 
foreign politics'. 81 By the end of the century, evangelical reformers increasingly con- 
demned pugilism as a 'detestable traffic in human flesh', on par with the slave trade, 
but Windham retorted that it was only such 'cruel sports' that protected the 'Old 
English character' from the threat of Jacobinism. 82 By 1809 he was making the 
connection between war and sport explicit, writing indignantly to a friend: 


A smart contest this between Maddox and Richmond! Why are we to 
boast so much of the native valour of our troops at Talavera, at Vimeira, 
and at Maida, yet to discourage all the practices and habits which tend 
to keep alive the same sentiments and feelings? The sentiments that 
filled the minds of the three thousand people who attended the two 
pugilists, were just the same in kind as those which inspired the higher 
combatants on the occasions before enumerated. It is the circum- 
stances only in which they are displayed, that makes the difference . . . 
But when I get on these topics, I never know how to stop. 83 

If sparring was, in Egan's terms, 'a representation' of prize-fighting, prize-fight- 
ing in turn had become a representation of war. 

'The cult of heroic endeavour and aggressive maleness that was so pro- 
nounced in patrician art and literature at this time', notes Linda Colley, 'was 
just as prominent in popular ballads and songs.' 84 Pierce Egan's Boxiana is cer- 
tainly full of songs and poems about 'Boney' and what will be done to the 'little 
upstart King'. 'A Boxing We Will Go', for example, was often 'sung at the con- 
vivial meetings of the Fancy': 

Italians stab their friends behind, 
In darkest shades of night; 
But Britons they are bold and kind, 
And box their friends by light. 

The sons of France their pistols use, 
Pop, pop, and they have done; 
But Britons with their hands will bruise, 
And scorn away to run. 

Since boxing is a manly game, 

And Briton's recreation; 

By boxing we will raise our fame, 

'Bove any other nation. 

A fig for Boney - let's have done 
With that ungracious name; 
We'll drink and pass our days in fun, 
And box to raise our fame. 85 

'It seems probable,' writes Colley, 'that some Britons at least volunteered [for the 
army] not so much because they were anxious to fight for anything in particu- 
lar, but simply because they wanted to fight - period.' 86 

Unfortunately for British fight fans, there was no possibility of a French 
fighter coming forward to allow a symbolic 'flooring' of Boney. Although 


matches were frequently organized to enact and illustrate anxieties about new 
immigrant populations (Jewish and Irish), no foreigner had challenged an 
English champion since 1733. 8y Since then, as Egan put it, the champion cap 
had passed from 'the nob of one native to another'. 88 By 1810, however, the 
desire was strong for a foreign opponent against whom British courage and valour 
could be expressed. If France was not willing, perhaps a surrogate battle could 
pitch Britain against another very recent enemy, the United States (illus. 45). 

A peace treaty had been formally signed between Great Britain and the United 
States in 1783, but relations between the two countries remained strained in the 
years that followed. Finally the British policy of intercepting merchant ships on 
the high seas, in order to prevent neutral trade with France, provoked the United 
States into declaring war in 1812. Two years later, what some have termed the 
Second Revolutionary War ended after the British suffered substantial losses. It is 
in the context of these events that the championship fights between Tom Cribb 
and Tom Molineaux in 1810 and 1811 should be understood. 89 Rounds one and 
two of Britain versus the United States were complicated only by the fact that 
Molineaux was black, a former slave from Virginia. 

Throughout the eighteenth century, young Virginians were frequently sent 
to England to complete their education. There, some witnessed prize-fights and 
attended boxing academies. In a 1785 letter Thomas Jefferson complained that 
in learning 'drinking, horse racing and boxing' ('the peculiarities of English 
education') young Americans might also acquire 'a fondness for European 
luxury and dissipation, and a contempt for the simplicity of [their] own country'. 90 
Boxing may have been un-republican, but it was certainly popular among slave- 
owners, many of whom, in search of gambling opportunities, trained their 
slaves to compete with those from other plantations, sometimes rewarding 
those who earned them money with their freedom. 91 

Whether or not some slaves did obtain manumission, it is certainly true 
that the first professional boxers in America were free blacks. Some ended up 
in England. Before Molineaux, the most famous was Bill Richmond. Brought 
to England in 1777 at the age of fourteen as a servant to the Duke of Northum- 
berland, Richmond first trained as a cabinet maker and, after a reasonably 
successful career as a pugilist, continued to promote fights and train fighters 
while managing a tavern next door to the Fives Court. In 1805 Richmond had 
been defeated by a young Tom Cribb and, according to legend, he wanted a 
protege to exact revenge. 

Thought to have been born a slave in Virginia, Tom Molineaux arrived in 
New York at the age of twenty as a freeman and began to fight at the Catherine 
Street market. Four years later, he set sail to England with the plan of challeng- 
ing Cribb, by then champion of England (which at that time also meant cham- 
pion of the world). The fight that took place between the two men on 18 
December 1810, at Capthall Common, Sussex, is one of the most mythologized 
events of the Regency (illus. 15 and illus. 16). Pierce Egan recalled the fever- 
ish atmosphere of the day: 


^^k ^ 


portrait figure 
of Tom Cribb, 
c. 1810-15. 


portrait figure of 
Tom Molineaux, 
c. 1810-15. 

The pugilistic honour of the country was at stake . . . the national laurels 
to be borne away by a foreigner - the mere idea to an English breast 
was afflicting, and the reality could not be endured - that it should 
seem, the spectators were ready to exclaim - 

Forbid it heaven, forbid it man! 92 

After nineteen rounds in driving icy rain those spectators did more than exclaim; 
they rushed into the ring and broke one of Molineaux's fingers in the scrimmage. 
Nevertheless, the American continued to dominate and at the beginning of the 
28th round, Cribb seemed unable to rise. At that point his second leapt up and 
accused Molineaux of hiding lead bullets in his fists. By the time this charge had 
been refuted, Cribb had recovered enough to continue. Molineaux's bad luck 
continued when he hit his head on one of the stakes at the corner of the ring, and 
in the 39th round he conceded the fight. Egan's report is equivocal. He is careful 
not to claim a breach of fair play, but concedes that it was Molineaux's 'colour 
alone' which 'prevented him from becoming the hero of that fight'. 

A few days later Molineaux published an open letter to Cribb: 'Sir, - My friends 
think, that had the weather on last Tuesday, the day upon which I contended 
with you, not been so unfavourable, I should have won the battle'. He challenged 

4 r > 

Cribb to a second meeting, 'expressing the confident hope, that the circumstance 
of my being a different colour to that of a people amongst whom I have sought 
protection will not in any way operate to my prejudice.' 93 

The following year (before a crowd estimated at 15-20,000) Cribb, who had 
spent eleven weeks with the noted trainer, Captain Barclay, defeated an ill- 
prepared Molineaux in what the Times described as a 'most obstinate and san- 
guinary combat'. 94 Once Cribb was safely champion, the fans could once more 
become magnanimous, and soon songs were sung about Molineaux's bravery 
- Tho' beat, he proved a man my boys, what more could a man do' - and he 
too was co-opted into imaginary contests with Boney. 

The blurring of the language of war and the language of sport was not 
restricted to those who watched from the sidelines. Wellington himself famously 
described Waterloo as 'a pounding match' and said of its opposing armies, 'both 
were what the boxers call gluttons'. 95 The war ended in 1815, and Thomas 
Moore's 'Epistle from Tom Cribb to Big Ben, Concerning some Foul Play in a 
Late Transaction' (1818), satirically compares the conduct of the allies in exiling 
Napoleon to St Helena to kicking a man when he is down. 

'Foul! Foul!' all the lads of the Fancy exclaim - 
Charley Shock is electrified - Belcher spits flame - 
And Molyneux - ay, even Blacky cries 'shame!' 
Time was, when John Bull little difference spied 
'Twixt the foe at his feet, and the friend at his side; 
When he found (such his humour in fighting and eating) 
His foe, like his beefsteak, the sweeter for beating. 96 

In the years that followed, although Boney remained in St Helena, pugilistic jingo- 
ism showed no signs of abating. 'In the mythology of the Ring,' writes Peter Bailey, 
'the fist was England's national weapon and the skilful and courageous wielding of 
it in public kept alive the spirit of Waterloo.' 97 Many found it useful to recall foreign 
enemies in the period of increased civil unrest that followed the war's end. 

'having the luck to be born an englishman' 

A rhetoric of nationalist masculinity was not new to the Napoleonic period, but 
what was new, perhaps, was the anxiety, and urgency, with which it was deployed. 
The spectre of effeminacy was constantly evoked. Boxing was not merely British 
and democratic, but, in its direct physicality, a more masculine way of fighting 
than relatively at-a-distance foreign methods (the dagger and knife) mentioned 
in popular songs such as 'A Boxing We Will G0'. 98 Works such as 'Defence of Box- 
ing' (a 'political view of the subject'), by Windham's friend, William Cobbett, 
make much of supposed links between effeminacy and tyranny. Boxing, Cobbett 
claimed, could stave off 'national degradation' and help prevent 'submission to 
a foreign yoke'. 'Commerce, Opulence, Luxury, Effeminacy, Cowardice, Slavery,' 


he maintained, 'are the stages of national degradation.' By threatening to replace 
'hardy' sports by those 'requiring less strength, and exposing the persons 
engaged in them to less bodily suffering', Britain was already showing symptoms 
of effeminacy and edging dangerously towards 'national cowardice'. 99 And if the 
effeminate nation then turned to undemocratic weapons such as the knife or the 
dagger, a decline into slavery was practically inevitable. 100 

But while Cobbett saw in boxing an unambiguous solution to the threat of 
national effeminacy, others were less certain both about nation and about mas- 
culinity. In Boxiana, the Protestant Irish Pierce Egan sometimes claimed box- 
ing for England and sometimes for Britain. In 'The Two Drovers' (1827), Walter 
Scott kept the distinction clear; boxing is an English sport. The story is set in the 
1780s, and presents a conflict between two friends - a Highlander, Robin Oig, 
and an Englishman, Harry Wakefield - two different forms of combat - the 
sword and the fists - and two versions of masculinity. 101 The drovers are phys- 
ically very different. Robin Oig was 'small of stature, as the epithet Oig implies, 
and not very strongly limbed'; on the other hand, he was 'as light and alert as 
one of the deer of his mountains'. Harry Wakefield was 'nearly six feet high, gal- 
lantly formed to keep the rounds at Smithfield, or maintain the ring at a 
wrestling match; and although he might have been overmatched, perhaps, 
among the regular professors of the Fancy, yet, as a yokel or a rustic, or a chance 
customer, he was able to give a bellyful to any amateur of the pugilistic art.' 102 

The men quarrel over who has the right to graze his sheep in a particular 
field, just on the English side of the Border. Harry wants a 'turn-up' and even 
offers to wear gloves. But Robin prefers the broadsword - 'I have no skill to fight 
like a jackanapes, with hands and nails'. Neither is a gentleman, but both are 
anxious to claim that status - Robin by evoking the Highland and European 
traditions of sword-fighting; Harry by boasting prowess in the fashionable 
English 'puglistic art'. They start with Harry's game, at which he beats Robin 
'with as much ease as a boy bowls down a nine-pin'. In victory, Harry offers 
dubious consolation to his friend: 

'Tis not thy fault, man, that not having the luck to be born an English- 
man, thou canst not fight more than a school-girl.' 

'I can fight,' answered Robin Oig sternly, but calmly, 'and you shall 
know it. You, Harry Waakfelt, shewed me today how the Saxon churls 
fight - 1 shew you now how the Highland Dunniewassal fights.' 

He seconded the word with the action, and plunged the dagger, 
which he suddenly displayed, into the broad breast of the English yeo- 
man, with such fatal certainty and force, that the hilt made a hollow 
sound against the breast-bone, and the double-edged point split the 
very heart of his victim. 

Both men are aware of the physical intimacy of fighting. Harry had hoped that 
the boxing match would end up with a clasping of hands and the two men 


'better friends than ever'; it would be a 'tussle for love on the sod'. Although 
Robin suggests that boxing, a form of fighting 'with hands and nails', is unseemly, 
even animalistic, in its intimate physicality, his later plunge of the dirk into his 
friend's heart might be read as a more complete consummation of their uneasy 
relationship; it is certainly more suggestively phallic than the mere touch of 
hands. 103 Slurs of effeminacy (fighting like a schoolgirl, etc.) have given way to 
something else. 'The Two Drovers' ends with Robin Oig on trial, and with the 
judge reflecting on the cultural relativity of codes of honour. This has been, after 
all, a tale of the Borders. 

A rather different interpretation of effeminacy, one with personal rather than 
political implications, is also introduced in Cobbett's essay when he refers to the 
prize-fighter Jem Belcher. Egan had described Belcher as having a 'prepossessing 
appearance, genteel and remarkably placid in his behaviour'. 104 He was generally 
thought to be a bit of a dandy, and wore 'immaculate dark clothes, set off by a 
vivid and extravagant neckcloth (usually blue with white spots)' which became 
known as a 'belcher' (illus. 17). los Cobbett, however, did not refer to Belcher's rep- 
utation for elegance (perhaps because he believed that 'women . . . despise personal 
vanity in men) and instead characterized him as 'a monster, a perfect ruffian'. 106 
Nevertheless, there is 'scarcely a female Saint, perhaps, who would not, in her way 
to the conventicle, or even during the snuffling there to be heard, take a peep at 
him from beneath her hood. Can as much be said by any one of those noblemen 
and gentlemen who have been spending the best years of their lives in danc- 
ing by night and playing cricket by day?' 
No wonder, Cobbett - the ex-soldier - 
added, women like soldiers. Effeminacy in 
this passage seems simply to mean sexual 
unattractiveness; war is forgotten in the face 
of more pressing issues. A little monstrous 
manliness would get you the girl. 

Sometimes it would also get you the 
guy. References to boxers' groupies or 
'macaronis' can be found in several eigh- 
teenth-century poems. 'Macaroni' was a 
derogatory label for young men who had 
travelled to France and Italy and came 
back with long hair and a taste for foreign 
food. In June 1770 the Oxford Magazine 
noted that 'a kind of animal, neither male 
not female, a thing of the neuter gender' 
had 'lately started up amongst us. It is 
called a Macaroni. It talks without mean- 
ing, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats 
without appetite, it rides without exercise, 
it wenches without passion .' 107 Three years 


Benjamin Marshall, 
James Belcher, Bare- 
Knuckle Champion of 
England, c. 1803, oil 
on canvas. 


later, mAuldReikie, his poem of Edinburgh life, Robert Fergusson describes the 
drunken procession of the presumably beef-eating 'Bruiser' and the 'feckless 
Race o' Macaronies' who pursue him. 108 Christopher Anstey's burlesque The 
Patriot (1767) expressed the hope that Buckhorse's 'manly Strength' might 
'greatly discompose': 

The Features of our modern Beaux, 
And from their Macaroni Faces 
Send packing all the Loves and Graces; 109 

By the early nineteenth century, raucous descriptions of men pursuing boxers 
and women participating in fights (both, for eighteenth-century men, unfail- 
ing sources of comedy) had ceased; fighting was now a serious manly business 
and women largely featured as imaginary witnesses to this manliness. (Many 
historians have argued that from the 1770s onwards there was an increased 
cultural insistence on separate spheres for women and men. 110 ) Sometimes 
descriptions of women spectators contain the frisson that Cobbett seems to 
experience in imagining the 'female Saint' peeping at the boxer from beneath 
her hood, but most often women are evoked precisely to show how alien their 
presence would be in the manly world of the Fancy. B. W. Proctor, for example, 
speculated in 1820 that 'if women were to attend the prize-fight how charming 
might it become': 

With what an air would our boxers strike, did they know that bright 
eyes were looking on them! How delicately would they 'peel!' and with 
what elegant indifference would they come up to 'the scratch!' The con- 
sciousness in question would generate the finest feeling amongst them : 
honour would ever be upper-most in their thoughts, even in a fall. 111 

Proctor clearly thought that any feminine involvement would ruin boxing. Not 
everyone agreed. After reluctantly attending a fight in 1818, Thomas Moore 
noted in his diary that it was not as 'horrid' as he had expected; indeed, 'had 
there been a proportionate mixture of women in the immense ring formed 
around, it would have been a very brilliant spectacle'. 112 


John Jackson became Champion of the Prize Ring in 1795 when, in a clear breach 
of the rules - grabbing and pulling an opponent's hair was not permitted - he de- 
feated Daniel Mendoza. A shrewd businessman, Jackson soon retired to join forces 
with fencing instructor Harry Angelo in his rooms at 13, New Bond Street. As one 
boxing historian put it, this initiated a new era in the 'gymnastic education of the 
aristocracy. Not to have had lessons of Jackson was a reproach. To attempt a list of 
his pupils would be to copy one-third of the then peerage.' 113 All the young 


nobility flock to his standard,' proclaimed Eaton Stannard Barrett in 1817, 'and, 
after a few months, find, with great delight, that they are matches for any drayman 
in town.' 114 Pupils included the Prince Regent, who had been a fan of Jackson's since 
watching him fight in Croydon in 1788. In 1821, the Prince turned to Jackson to 
provide eighteen prize-fighters as ushers at his coronation. Their presence had 
more than ceremonial purpose, for when George's estranged wife, the notorious 
Queen Caroline, arrived at Westminster Abbey to claim her position as Consort, 
the pugilists rushed to the door. William Cobbett was affronted, 'When she got to 
the door, and made an attempt to enter, she was actually thrust back by the hands 
of a common prize-fighter.' 115 

A less demanding, but no less devoted, pupil of Jackson's was George Gordon 
Byron, whose 1811 poem 'Hints from Horace' instructed that 'men unpractised in 
exchanging knocks / Must go to Jackson ere they dare to box.' 116 On leaving Cam- 
bridge in 1806, Byron took up boxing with great passion, initially as part of a rig- 
orous regime of exercise and dieting; he quickly lost 3 1 / stone. When he moved to 
London in 1808, he spent a great deal of time in Jackson's company (Thomas 
Moore's Life features some of Byron's rather bossy letters to Jackson from that 
time) and later visits to the capital always included a trip to the New Bond Street 
rooms. 117 On 17 March 1814, for example, he noted that he had 'been sparring with 
Jackson for exercise this morning, and mean to continue and renew my acquain- 
tance with my muffles'. 

My chest, and arms, and wind are in a very good plight, and I am not in 
flesh. I used to be a hard hitter, and my arms are very long for my height 
(5 feet 8/2 inches); at any rate exercise is good, and this, the severest of all; 
fencing and the broad-sword never fatigued me so much. 118 

Some years later, in a note to the Eleventh Canto of Don Juan, he paid tribute to 
'My friend and corporeal pastor and master, John Jackson, Esquire, professor of 
pugilism, who I trust still retains the strength and symmetry of his model of a 
form, together with his good humour, and athletic as well as mental accomplish- 
ments.' 119 Byron, whose Achilles tendons were so contracted he could only walk 
on the balls of his toes and who had been reviled as 'a lame brat' by his mother, 
remained, throughout his life, anxious about his own looks and an admirer of 
good looks in others. 120 Although this is never mentioned in his writings, boxing 
and swimming surely appealed to Byron as sports in which the impact of his lame- 
ness was minimal. 121 

Jackson's portrait was hung among the family pictures at Newstead Abbey, 
Byron's family home, and included in a collage of boxers on his dressing screen. 
The four-panel, six-foot high screen features theatrical portraits on one side and, on 
the other, coloured prints of prize-fighters and fights; some reports from Boxiana 
are included and some accounts of fights are handwritten. Both sequences are 
arranged chronologically; the boxing sequence begins with Figg and Broughton 
and ends with Jackson (illus. 18/19). 122 



Byron's screen: four 
panels, c, 1811-14, 
popular prints 
collaged onto a 
wooden frame. 


Detail of Byron's 
screen, featuring 
Tom Molineaux. 

John Jackson, one of whose nicknames was 'Commander-in-Chief, may 
also have been the model for John Johnson, the 'British friend' with whom Don 
Juan fights the Turks in canto eight of Byron's satire. 123 This is suggested by the 
description of their thrashing by 'Turkish batteries' as like a flail, / Or a good 
boxer' in stanza xliii, and the ambiguous phrasing in stanza xcvn, where 'Jack' 
could refer to the first or surname: 

Up came John Johnson (I will not say Jack) 
For that were vulgar, cold, and commonplace, 
On great occasions such as an attack . . . 

Johnson certainly inspires the sort of admiring devotion in Juan that Jackson 
did in Byron. While Juan is a 'mere novice' at war, Johnson is 'a noble fellow' 
who is frequently 'very busy without bustle'; in return, we are happy to learn, 
Johnson 'really loved him in his way'. 124 

Byron's interest in boxing did not stem wholly from its healthful benefits. 
The glamorous demi-monde of prize-fighting also appealed. An 1807 letter 
described London life as consisting of, among other diversions, 'routs, riots, balls 
and boxing matches', a lifestyle that would be duplicated by Don Juan, who 
passed his London afternoons 'in visits, luncheons, / Lounging and boxing'. 125 

At this time, the boxing world centred on a handful of London pubs in the 
back rooms of which boxers often trained, and where their managers might 
meet, and dine, with wealthy backers. On retiring, many boxers opened pubs 
attracting a sporting clientele with their trophies and their stories. Bob Gregson's 
Castle Tavern in High Holborn opened in 1810 and its snuggery soon became an 
inner sanctum for the Fancy. After Gregson was convicted for debt evasion, Tom 
Belcher took over, 'skimm[ing] the cream off the Fancy', as Egan put it, for 
another fourteen years. 126 After Tom Spring defeated Bill Neate, Egan noted 
that 'Belcher's house, the Castle Tavern, was like a fair; Randall's was crowded 
to suffocation; Holt's hadn't room for a pin; Eales' was overstocked; and Tom 
Cribb's was crammed with visitors.' 127 Byron was a regular customer at all these 
houses, especially Cribb's - 'Tom is an old friend of mine; I have seen some of 
his best battles in my nonage', Byron noted after an evening during which he 
'drank more than I like'. 128 

Two of the most famous regulars at Jackson's Academy, Cribb's pub, and the 
London fights, were fictional - Corinthian Tom and his country cousin, Jerry 
Hawthorne, the rakish heroes of Pierce Egan's picaresque bestseller, Life in Lon- 
don (1821), a work lavishly illustrated by his friends, Robert and George Cruik- 
shank (George, 'not averse from using his fists in an up-and-down tussle', was 
sometimes compared to the fighter Tom Spring). 129 The three men often worked 
together, and between them created a distinctive 'flash' style of commentary on 
Regency life (illus. 48). The next chapter will explore this style in some detail. 

The appeal of Life in London lay largely in its promising to bring together 
high and low life. A trip to the Royal Academy, for example, is followed by, 


and juxtaposed with, one to the slums - cousin Jerry must enjoy the complete 
urban experience. When John Clare read Don Juan in 1824 he wrote in his 
journal that Byron's 'Hero seems a fit partner for [Egan's] Tom and Jerry'. 130 
Byron himself boasted of 'eternal parties', featuring 'Jockies, Gamblers, Boxers, 
Authors, parsons, andpoets ... a precious Mixture, but they go on well together.' 131 
Boxing culture throve on the promise of social promiscuity. The readers of Life 
in London were largely neither upper nor working class, but they could, with 
Egan's help, imagine themselves mingling with members of both. At the Castle 
Tavern, Egan wrote, 'You may be seated next to an m.p. without being aware 
of that honour; or you may likewise rub against some noble lord without com- 
mitting a breach of privilege. You may meet poets on the look-out for a hero, 
artists for subjects; and boxers for customers.' 132 Readers, whether 'fire-side 
heroes' or 'sprightly maidens', could, he promised, '"see Life" without receiving 
a scratch.' 133 

Some found this picture of social promiscuity more frightening than ap- 
pealing. In Tales of a Traveller (1824), Washington Irving's Buckthorne described 
a boxing match as nothing more than 'an arena, where the noble and illustrious 
are jostled into familiarity with the infamous and the vulgar'. 'What, in fact, is 
The Fancy itself,' he continued, 'but a chain of easy communication, extending 
down form the peer to the pick-pocket, through the medium of which a man of 
rank may find he has shaken hands at three removes, with the murderer on the 
gibbet?' 134 

For Byron the effect of moving between high and low life had psychological 
as well as social consequences. In a journal entry for 23 November 1813, largely 
preoccupied with feeling 'wound up' after an unpleasant dream, he noted the 
therapeutic effects of such jaunts: 

I must not dream again; - it spoils even reality. I will go out of doors and 
see what the fog will do for me. Jackson has been here: the boxing world 
much as usual; - but the club increases. I shall dine at Crib's tomorrow. 
I like energy - even animal energy - of all kinds; and I have need of 
both mental and corporeal. I have not dined out, nor indeed, at all, 
lately: have heard no music - have seen nobody. Now for a plunge - 
high life and low life. Amant alterna Camaana; [The Muses love alternat- 
ing verses.] 135 

An insistence on the value of alternating between the mental and corpo- 
real, or more, an insistence on the necessity of the physical for 'the ethereal', re- 
curs throughout his notebooks. On 19 April 1814, he recorded having spent four 
days lovesick and alone, except, it emerges, for daily visits from Jackson: 

I have sparred for exercise (windows open) with Jackson an hour daily, 
to attenuate and keep up the ethereal part of me. The more violent the 
fatigue the better my spirits for the rest of the day . . . To-day I have 


boxed an hour - written an ode to Napoleon Buonaparte - copied it - 
eaten six biscuits -drunk four bottles of soda water -redde away the 
rest of my time - besides giving poor [Webster?] a world of advice on 
this mistress of his . . . 136 

The detailed nature of Byron's accounting - including the perennial dieter's 
awareness of the precise number of biscuits he has consumed - suggests that he 
did not leave the balance of high and low, physical and emotional, to chance. On 
the day of his mother's funeral in 1811, Byron called for his page to bring his box- 
ing gloves for his daily exercise rather than follow the coffin to the family vault. 
The sparring that day, the page recalled, was more violent than usual. 137 After 
his beloved brother Tom died in 1818, a distraught John Keats was taken to a 
prize-fight at Crawley Downs by well-meaning friends. Pugilism, the 'Regency 
answer to grief, stoical and worldly', did not seem to work in his case. 138 


Pugilism and Style 

All the great poets should have been fighters. Take Keats and Shelley, 

for an example. They were pretty good poets, but they died young. 

You know why? Because they didn't train. 

Cassius Clay, 1964 1 

Byron consistently affected hauteur about those who took writing too seriously; 
a gesture characteristic of what Christopher Ricks terms his 'flippant lordli- 
ness'. 2 In an 1821 journal entry, he noted that his mother, Madame de Stael and 
the Edinburgh Review had all, at various times, compared him to Rousseau. A 
page then follows in which he explains why he cannot see 'any point of resem- 
blance'. There are many points of contrast, and some interestingly odd 
conjunctions. The first comes in Byron's initial distinction - 'he wrote prose, I 
verse; he was of the people, I the Aristocracy'. Prose then is aligned with 'the 
people'; poetry with the Aristocracy. The revelation that 'he liked Botany, I like 
flowers, and herbs, and trees, but know nothing of their pedigrees' further 
damns prose for its utilitarianism. Rousseau is little more than an Enlighten- 
ment taxonomist. From then on, it is a short step (a mere colon) from 'He wrote 
with hesitation and care, I with rapidity and rarely with pains' to an account of 
what 'better' things an aristocrat might find to do: 

He could never ride nor swim 'nor was cunning of the fence', I am an 
excellent swimmer, a decent though not at all dashing rider . . . sufficient 
offence . . . not a bad boxer when I could keep my temper, which was 
difficult, but which I strove to do ever since I knocked down Mr Purling 
and put his knee-pad out (with the gloves on) in Angelo's and Jackson's 
rooms in 1806 during the sparring . . . 

In a journal entry of 1813, written before going to dinner at Tom Cribb's with 
Jackson, Byron complained that 'the mighty stir made about scribbling and 
scribes' was a 'sign of effeminacy, degeneracy and weakness. Who would write, 
who had anything better to do?' 3 


Byron's concern with class is evident in the scorn he expressed five years later 
for Leigh Hunt's reference to poetry as a 'profession': 'I thought that Poetry was 
an art, or an attribute, and not a profession.' 4 There was one profession, however, 
which Byron admired unreservedly. Pugilism was an activity in which the bound- 
aries between professional and amateur were clear. Nonchalance was not there- 
fore required, and proper training was desirable. Byron could train as hard as he 
liked to box, without anyone suspecting that he was not a gentleman. And even 
he thought that there were literary activities which required a comparable pro- 
fessional attitude. In 'Hints from Horace' (1811), Byron lambasted the Edinburgh 
Review critic Francis Jeffrey as unqualified to discuss his poems, suggesting that 
no boxer would presume to enter the ring without proper training. 5 

In this chapter, I shall explore some of the ways in which, during the early 
decades of the nineteenth century, writers and artists found in pugilism not 
only a subject-matter, but the basis for a method. 


Writing about pugilism reached its zenith in the 1820s, at a time when the sport 
itself had begun to wane. At the forefront of the fad was undoubtedly Pierce 
Egan's Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism. The first volume 
appeared in 1812, followed by a second in 1818, a third in 1821, and a new series 
in two volumes in 1828 and 1829. His round-by-round accounts of fights be- 
tween Mendoza and Humphries, or Cribb and Molineaux, are still the major 
sources quoted today. In 1824, he began editing a weekly paper, Pierce Egan's 
Life in London and Sporting Guide, which later developed into the famous sport- 
ing journal, Bell's Life in London. What distinguished Egan's work from other 
boxing histories of the period (such as William Oxberry's 1812 Pancratia) was its 
great verve and distinctive style. Dubbed 'the Great Lexicographer of the Fancy', 
Egan did not just reflect the language of the Fancy, he created it. 6 His 1822 edi- 
tion of Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue included many 
of his own coinings. 

Egan's writing is characterized by a lively mixture of elaborate metaphors, 
dreadful puns and awful verse. In this passage from 'The Fancy on the Road to 
Moulsey Hurst', aided by a lavish supply of commas, italics and capitals, he 
describes a particular type of 'fancier': 

His heart is up to his mouth every moment for fear he should befloored, 
he is anxious to look like a swell, if 'tis only for a day: he has therefore 
borrowed a prad to come it strong, without recollecting, that to be a top- 
ofthe-tree buck requires something more than the furnishing hand of a 
tailor, or the assistance of the groom. It should also be remembered, 
that although the Corinthian at times descend hastily down a few 
steps, to take a peep into the lower regions of society, to mark their 
habits and customs, yet many of them can as hastily regain their 


eminency, as the player throws off his dress, and appear in reality - 


The horseman's flash style is an unsuccessful attempt at assuming a higher class 
position - his gig is 'hired, his horse ('prad') borrowed, and his clothes reflect the 
taste of his tailor. The enterprise is doomed, Egan suggests; it is obvious to any- 
one really flash, really knowing, that he is an impostor, an 'empty bounce'. The 
Corinthian 's 'mark[ing]' of 'the habits and customs' of a lower class is not, 
however, subject to the same disparagement. He does not cling to his disguise, 
but readily, 'hastily', throws it off to resume his status. Slumming is temporary 
and permissible while social climbing, which strives for permanent change, 
is not. 

Class mobility was a key element in the spread of boxing and its idiom dur- 
ing this period. The early nineteenth century saw the establishment of numer- 
ous magazines, many of which catered for a growing 'army of bachelor clerks 
and lawyer's apprentices' whose aspiration to gentility often manifested itself 
as an interest in traditionally aristocratic pastimes. 8 Flash slang involved the 
middle-class imitation of an upper-class imitation of lower-class idioms. 9 

The Tory Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine was particularly keen on 
traditional squirish activities such as pugilism and published numerous reports, 
stories and articles on the sport. (In 1822 it declared itself 'a real Magazine of 
mirth, misanthropy, wit, wisdom, folly, fiction, fun, festivity, theology, bruising 
and thingumbob'. 10 ) Most notable were the boxing writings of John Wilson, 
Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, writing as Blackwood's 
fictional editor, 'Christopher North'. Wilson had boxed while a student at 
Oxford - his friend Thomas De Quincey recalled that 'not a man, who could 
either 'give' or 'take', but boasted to have punished, or to have been punished by, 
Wilson ofMallens [Magdalen]' - and often depicted himself in Blackwood's as a 
kind of critical pugilist. 11 But while Hugh MacDiarmid later wrote scathingly of 
Wilson as 'the most extraordinary exponent' of the kind of 'verbiage' which is 
intended 'simply to batter the hearer into a pulpy state of vague acquiescence', 
others relished both the verbiage and the battering. 12 'I cannot express . . . the 
heavenliness of associations connected with such articles as Professor Wilson's,' 
wrote Branwell Bronte in 1835, 'read and re-read while a little child, with all their 
poetry of language and divine flights into that visionary realm of imagination'. 13 

One of Wilson's finest flights of imagination can be found in the May 1820 
issue of Blackwood's in the form of a '"Luctus" on the Death of Sir Daniel Don- 
nelly, Late Champion of Ireland.' The prize-fighter had died after a particularly 
heavy drinking session. Wilson included copiously footnoted tributes from 
imagined scholars in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, along with poems in the style of 
Byron and Wordsworth. While Byron is perhaps too obvious a target, and 'Child 
Daniel' not particularly funny, the 'extract from my great auto-biographical 
poem' contributed by W. W. is sharply attentive to both the Lake Poet's style and 
his distance from the world (and slang) of the Fancy: 


. . . Yea, even I, 
Albeit, who never 'ruffian'd' in the ring, 
Nor know of 'challenge', save the echoing hills; 
Nor 'fibbing', save that poesy doth feign, 
Nor heard his fame, but as the mutterings 
Of clouds contentious on Helvellyn's side, 
Distant, yet deep, aguise a strange regret, 
And mourn Donnelly - Honourable Sir Daniel: - 14 

Wordsworth enjoyed a rare immunity to 'boximania'. 15 By the 1820s, it had 
become almost unthinkable in certain circles not to understand boxing slang or 
the 'flash'. The oed cites the first instance of 'flash' being used to mean 'dashing, 
ostentatious, swaggering, "swell"' in 1785: the slightly later meaning of 'belong- 
ing to, connected with, or resembling, the class of sporting men, esp. the 
patrons of the ring' dates from 1808. But the two meanings seem related. 'A flash 
man upon the town' is surely swaggering and dandyish, as well as knowledge- 
able about prize-fighting. A third, related, meaning is 'knowing, wide-awake, 
"smart", "fly"'. Egan opens Boxiana with a footnote explaining the Fancy 'as 
many of our readers may not be flash to the above term'. But it seems likely, as 
Egan must surely have realized, that if a reader was flash to 'flash', he would be 
flash to 'the Fancy'. 16 

Keats's description of Byron's Don Juan as 'a flash poem' seems to draw on 
all these meanings; few poems are so knowing, swaggering, and connected to 
practitioners and patrons of the ring. 17 Canto xi presents an encounter between 
Juan, newly arrived in London from Spain, and an assailant called Tom, 'full 
flash, all fancy', whom Juan shoots and kills. '0 Jack, I'm floor'd' are his final 
words. Byron then devotes a stanza to the memory of Tom, 'so prime, so swell, 
so nutty, and so knowing'. Tom would have understood such flash language, 
but Juan does not even understand standard English. 18 A note is supplied, which 
refuses to explain anything because, Byron says, 'the advance of science and of 
language has rendered it unnecessary to translate the above good and true Eng- 
lish, spoken in its original purity by the select mobility and their patrons'. He 
directs any readers who 'require a traduction' to Gentleman Jackson. 19 In 1808, 
John Cam Hobhouse commented that his friend had been 'deeply admitted into 
the penetralia Jacksoniana'; some years later, in his Life of Lord Byron, Thomas 
Moore recalled his amusement at observing 'how perfectly familiar with the 
annals of "The Ring", and with all the most recondite phraseology of "the 
Fancy", was the sublime poet of Childe Harold'. 20 (Byron's attachment to boxing 
and its language was, Moore felt, one of his several 'boyish tastes'.) 

Gary Dyer argues that Byron and his friends were attracted to the Fancy's 
dialect because it 'was fashioned to hide meanings from outsiders'. 21 Indeed as 
Thomas Moore put it in the preface to his satirical poem 'Tom Crib's Memor- 
ial to Congress', flash 'was invented, and is still used, like the cipher of the diplo- 
matists, for purposes of secrecy'. 22 What that secrecy meant to upper-class 


'fanciers' like Byron is a matter for speculation. Dyer reads Byron's secrets as 
always ultimately referring back to sodomy. Byron's biographer, Benita Eissler, 
maintains that Jackson and Angelo were 'rumoured' to be lovers as well as busi- 
ness partners, and that the Academy served as a cover for illicit meetings. 23 
While there is no direct evidence for this, it is certainly true that Byron's London 
circle was interested in sodomy as well as in boxing. 

But a secret language surely holds other attractions. One is exclusivity, or, 
in the age of the beginnings of commercial journalism, the pretence of exclu- 
sivity. In the course of a general denunciation of the Fives Court as a 'college of 
scoundrelism' in 1824, Washington Irving's Buckthorne asks, 'what is the slang 
language of "The Fancy" but a jargon by which fools and knaves commune and 
understand each other, and enjoy a kind of superiority over the uninitiated?' 24 
Robert Southey's fictional Don Espriella, 'writing to the uninitiated' back in 
Spain in 1807, certainly takes great pleasure in explaining such terms as 'bot- 
tom', 'a pleasant fighter' and 'much punished'. 25 In 1818, however, phrases such 
as these remain untranslated by Byron, although he tells us that only what he 
calls 'the select mobility and their patrons' will understand; only they speak 
'good and true English'. Byron's play on 'select nobility' does more than suggest 
that boxers are like noblemen. His footnote also mocks the widespread ten- 
dency to explain flash language in footnotes. By freely coining his own new 
phrase, 'select mobility', Byron is attacking jargon's claim to provide unique 
access to knowledge. 

Many other poets made comparable play with boxing language. The narra- 
tor of Henry Luttrell's Advice to Julia: A Letter in Rhyme (1820) stops a perfectly 
adequate description of a fight to apologise for his lack of pugilistic vocabulary: 

But hold. - Such prowess to describe 

Asks all the jargon of the tribe; 

And though enough to serve my turn 

From 'Boxiana' I might learn, 

Or borrow from an ampler store 

In the bright page of Thomas Moore . . . 26 

Thomas Moore is an interesting choice of source, for he much disliked boxing. 
Nevertheless, Moore too sought out the company of Jackson, and once attended 
a fight (which was 'altogether not so horrid as I expected') for the sake of his 
verse; in order 'to pick up as much of the fiashfrom authority, as possible'. 27 
Although he 'got very little out of Jackson', he went on to write two popular 
poems on pugilistic themes. 

John Hamilton Reynolds, on the other hand, loved boxing (he was the box- 
ing correspondent, as well as theatre critic, for the London Magazine). As a young 
man he regularly attended fights and sparred, while writing poetry and work- 
ing as a clerk in an insurance office. The Fancy (1820) is semi-autobiography dis- 
guised as the fictional biography of Peter Corcoran, boxing groupie and 'Student 


of Law' (the name was borrowed from an eighteenth-century fighter and had the 
advantage of sharing an acronym with the Pugilistic Club). Corcoran is also a 
poet, and much of The Fancy consists of his poems: 'pugilism', the editor notes, 
'engrossed nearly all his thoughts, and coloured all his writings'. The writing is 
full of cringe-worthy pugilistic puns. Consider, for example, one of the 'Stanzas 
to Kate, On Appearing Before Her After a Casual "Turn Up"': 

You know I love sparring and poesy, Kate, 

And scarcely care whether I'm hit at, or kiss'd; - 
You know that Spring equally makes me elate, 

With the blow of a flower, and the blow of a fist. 

'Spring' is asterisked, and the fictional editor writes, 'I am not sure whether Mr. 
Corcoran alluded here to the season, or the pugilist of this name.' 28 

Such pompous comments work to distance the reader from the editor as 
well as from Corcoran. In the preface, for example, he notes that 'this style of 
writing is not good - it is too broken, irresolute, and rugged; and it is too anx- 
ious in its search after smart expressions to be continuous or elevated in its sub- 
stance'. 29 By the book's end, we become aware both of the compulsive appeal of 
such 'rugged' and punning language - particularly as a way of deflating the 
'elevated' discourse of much poetry; again Wordsworth seems a target here - 
and of its repetitive limitations. 

A wider look at the literature of the 1820s (in particular magazine litera- 
ture) shows just how pervasive an addiction to flash really was. Thomas De 
Quincey, for example, savoured its use in a variety of contexts, some of which 
were more apposite than others. Boxing slang works particularly well in a July 
1828 attack on 'The Pretensions of Phrenology', because both boxing and 
phrenology are interested in the human skull. Medical and sporting jargon are 
set against each other in a description of the phrenologists who, 'after receiving 
a few hard thumps on ihefrontal sinus and the cerebellum, . . . were fain to have 
recourse to shifting and shuffling; bobbing aside their brain-boxes'. In the debate 
De Quincey champions the philosopher Sir William Hamilton, who we soon 
learn is no 'shy fighter', no 'flincher, a 'tolerably hard hitter and 'rather an ugly 
customer: 'the chanceried nobs of his two antagonists exhibit indisputable proofs 
of his pugilistic prowess, and of the punishment he is capable of administering'. 
And this is only the opening paragraph. 30 

Later that same month, De Quincey became a co-editor of the Edinburgh 
Evening Post, contributing the latest news from London and writing many short 
editorial notices. One addressed a dispute between two Edinburgh intellectuals 
on the teaching of Greek at Scottish universities with the promise of organizing 
'a set-to ... in our Publishing Office, between three and four' on any day of their 
choosing. 31 De Quincey and his co-editor, the Reverend Andrew Crichton, did 
not get on, and Crichton's own articles often contained digs at De Quincey 's 
'addiction' to metaphors drawn from the 'vile' sport of boxing. The 'defence of 


. . . pugilism' is 'very shallow', and 'monstrously inconsistent with Christian 
principles', he wrote in a review of Blackwood's; an author who resorts to 'the 
slang of the fancy' has 'a rough lump of the brute in him, which ought to be cut 
out by the scalpel'. 32 The surgical metaphor is itself an implicit rebuke to such 


In essays on topics ranging from parliamentary debate to sculpture to theatre to 
boxing, William Hazlitt talked about blows. The Reformation struck a 'death- 
blow' at 'scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy'; William Godwin's Enquiry concern- 
ing Political Justice dealt a 'blow to the philosophical mind of the country'; 
Wordsworth's 'popular, inartificial style gets rid (at a blow) of . . . all the high 
places of poetry.' 33 'On Shakespeare and Milton' (1818) reads like a comparison 
of the styles of two boxers rather than two writers. Shakespeare's blows are 'rapid 
and devious', 'the stroke like the lightning's, is sure as it is sudden'. Milton, on the 
other hand, 'always labours, and almost always succeeds'. 34 'Milton has great 
gusto. He repeats his blow twice; grapples with and exhausts his subject.' 35 

And it is not only poems which deal blows. In an 1826 essay 'On the Prose- 
Style of Poets', Hazlitt asserts categorically that 'every word should be a blow: 
every thought should instantly grapple with its fellow'. 'Weight', 'precision' and 
'contact' are needed to strike the best blow, and produce the best prose. Some 
writers display some of these virtues; few all. Byron's prose, for example, is 
'heavy, laboured and coarse: he tries to knock some one down with the butt- 
end of every line'. 3 

Hazlitt foregrounds the relationship between fighting and writing styles in 
an 1821 essay on William Cobbett. The essay begins by comparing the radical 
politician to the boxer Tom Cribb. Initially the comparison seems to be based 
on the fact of Cobbett 's devotion to pugilism and his self-representation as, 
like Cribb, a living embodiment of John Bull. 37 Hazlitt then moves on to mat- 
ters of style: 

His blows are as hard, and he himself is impenetrable. One has no no- 
tion of him as making use of a fine pen, but a great mutton-fist; his style 
stuns his readers, and he 'fillips the ear of the public with a three-man 
beetle'. 38 

The last phrase is a quotation from Henry iv part 2, and its inclusion, alongside 
sporting analogy, is a favourite technique of Hazlitt 's. In the pages that follow, the 
metaphor is developed more fully. Cobbett has a 'pugnacious disposition, that 
must have an antagonist power to contend with', but this is a 'bad propensity' since: 

If his blows were straightforward and steadily directed to the same 
object, no unpopular Minister could live before him; instead of which 


he lays about right and left, impartially and remorselessly, makes a 
clear stage, has all the ring to himself, and then runs out of it when he 
should stand his ground. 39 

The essay concludes by shifting the comparison. Cobbett is now no longer Eng- 
land's hero, Tom Cribb, but 'Big Ben', Benjamin Brain, known to be 'bullying 
and cowardly'. Not so tall but very stocky, Brain had defeated the long-reigning 
champion Tom Johnson in 1791 in 'a most tremendous battle'. 40 Johnson had 
been a favourite of the fashionable Fancy, and was even reputed to have worn 
pink laces in his boxing boots. 41 Big Ben was less gentlemanly. He badly dam- 
aged Johnson's nose in the second round, and fought on regardless, even when, 
in his distress, Johnson soon after broke a finger on a ring post. For many com- 
mentators this victory marks the end of the first era of British boxing, when 
men stood toe-to-toe and punched away without much technique. For Hazlitt 
to compare Cobbett to Big Ben is to insult not just his bravery, but also his skill 
and intelligence. Cobbett, he concludes, is 'a Big Ben in politics, who will fall 
upon others and crush them by his weight, but is not prepared for resistance, 
and is soon staggered by a few smart blows'. 42 

Hazlitt 's most sustained comparison of fighting and writing can be found 
in 'Jack Tars', an essay originally published in 1826 under the title 'English 
and Foreign Manners'. 'There are two things that an Englishman under- 
stands,' Hazlitt begins, 'hard words and hard blows,' and he goes on to define 
the English character in terms of a sort of aggressive empiricism. French 
audiences appreciate Racine and Moliere, whose 'dramatic dialogue is frothy 
verbiage'; English audiences prefer to watch boxing, where 'every Englishman 
feels his power to give and take blows increased by sympathy', or, what is put 
forward as its equivalent, English plays whose dialogue 'constantly clings to 
the concrete and has a purchase upon matter'. Englishmen, in short, perceive 
the world through violent opposition. This makes them feel 'alive' and also 
manly. 'The English are not a nation of women ... it cannot be denied they 
are a pugnacious set.' 43 

A complex alignment of qualities is being made. Some are familiar -pug- 
nacity, masculinity and Englishness; new to the mix is empiricism, defined 
as the pugnacious, masculine, English way of perceiving the world. The Eng- 
lish 'require the heavy, hard, and tangible only, something for them to grap- 
ple with and resist, to try their strength and their unimpressibility upon'. 44 
English empiricism is, in Hazlitt 's terms, less concerned with what John 
Locke called secondary qualities (colour, taste and smell are, Hazlitt main- 
tained, of more interest to the French), than 'the heavy, hard and tangible' 
primary qualities. 45 The solid materialism of Englishness ('our lumpish clay') 
is a favourite theme of Hazlitt 's, especially in opposition to light French live- 
liness. English criticism of French culture is difficult, he argued, because 'the 
strength of the blow is always defeated by the very insignificance and want 
of resistance in the object'. 46 


'The same images and trains of thought stick by me', Hazlitt wrote in his 
'Farewell to Essay-Writing' (1828). 47 This is clearly true, but his use of boxing 
idiom and metaphor was not an unthinking tick. Indeed, it serves much more 
various and complex purposes in his work than it does in that of any other writer 
of the time. Contemporary discussions of Hazlitt's language, however, rarely 
went beyond politically motivated condemnation or praise. Blackwood's argued 
that prize-fighters were 'downright Tories' and therefore belonged in Black- 
wood's, but other journals were more interested in suggesting that neither Ha- 
zlitt or pugilists were suitable for their polite middle-class readers. The New 
Edinburgh Review was 'sorry to say' that some of Hazlitt's allusions were 'of the 
lowest and most shockingly indelicate description'. It joined the Quarterly 
Review in dismissing him as a 'Slang-Whanger': 

We utterly loathe him where he seems most at home, namely, among 
pugilists, and wagerers, and professional tennis-players, passing cur- 
rent their vain glorious slang. We protest against allusions to the very 
existence of the Bens and Bills and Jacks and Jems and Joes of 'the ring', 
in any printed page above the destination of the ale-bench; but to have 
their nauseous vocabulary defiling the language of a printed book, reg- 
ularly entered at Stationers' Hall, and destined for the use of men and 
women of education, taste, and delicacy, is quite past endurance . . . 
we strenuously protest against this bang up style, this 'fancy diction', 
in a series of 'original essays'. Our conclusion, at least, is irresistible, - 
the author has not kept good company . . . 48 

The anti-Cockney snobbery of the Tory journals would not have surprised Ha- 
zlitt, nor would the qualified support of John Hamilton Reynolds, author of The 
Fancy, and boxing correspondent of the liberal London Magazine. Indeed 
Reynolds's only criticism of the second volume of Table Talk - that Hazlitt's 
points are put forward too directly- is itself made in 'fancy diction': 

The style of this book is singularly nervous [i.e. sinewy, strong and vig- 
orous] and direct, and seems to aim at mastering its subject by dint of 
mere hard hitting. There is no such thing as manoeuvring for a blow. 
The language strikes out, and if the intention is not fulfilled, the blow 
is repeated until the subject falls. 49 

Fascinated by boxing's metaphorical possibilities, Hazlitt wrote only one 
essay on the thing itself, 'The Fight' (1822). One of the most influential and fre- 
quently anthologized pieces on boxing, the essay encompasses many of the 
themes already discussed - style, Englishness, masculinity, the material world 
- and presents them in a manner at once casual and densely considered. 

Consider the epigraph, which rewrites Hamlet's musings on what he hopes 
to accomplish by putting on a play for Claudius's benefit (or punishment): 


— The fight, the fight's the thing, 

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. 50 

Hazlitt's substitution of 'fight' for 'play' has two implications: first, that a fight 
is a play, a kind of performance; secondly, that this particular fight/play is a per- 
formance from which something is to be learnt. Hamlet's play will catch the 
king's conscience. What about the fight Hazlitt witnesses? The contest is first of 
all a contest of performed styles; styles that we have come to think of as French 
and English. The champion, Bill Hickman, the Gasman, is 'light, vigorous, elas- 
tic', his skin glistening in the sun like a panther's hide'; his unfavoured chal- 
lenger, Bill Neate, is 'great, heavy, clumsy', with long arms 'like two 
sledge-hammers'. At one point, 'Neate seemed like a lifeless lump of flesh and 
bone, round which the Gasman's blows played with the rapidity of electricity or 
lightning.' The two men also differ in personality. Hickman is a Homeric 
boaster, who arrives to fight 'like the cock-of-the-walk'. Hazlitt is more judg- 
mental than Homer, however, and complains that Hickman 'strutted about 
more than became a hero'. Neate is modest and celebrates his eventual victory 
'without any appearance of arrogance'. 

In general, though, both men wonderfully exemplify courage and en- 
durance. But of what kind? Classical comparison casts Neate as Ajax to Hick- 
man's Diomed, Hector to his Achilles. The fight itself amply confirms the 'high 
and heroic state of man'. It reminds Hazlitt of the 'dark encounter' between 
clouds over the Caspian, in Milton's Paradise Lost, as Satan faces Sin and Death 
at hell's gates. 51 And yet the life actually lived during a fight is nasty, brutish, 
and (relatively) short. The fighter's triumph is not only transitory, but in essence 
banal ('The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed blood, the mouth 
gaped blood'), and invariably surreptitious (like a 1990s rave, the fight between 
Hickman and Neate took place, at the shortest possible notice, in a field near 
Newbury). Could it be that the literary form best suited to this brief battle was 
not epic poetry, but the essay? 

Hazlitt's essay, like the preparations made for the fight by participants and 
spectators alike, is much ado, if not exactly about nothing, then about some- 
thing as fleeting as it is pungent. He finds it difficult enough to get himself out 
of London. Missing the mail coach prompts a self-reproach that seems excessive, 
'I had missed it as I missed everything else, by my own absurdity.' Finally, how- 
ever, he is on his way, and as he puts on a great coat, his mood improves. Leav- 
ing London behind, he enters another world with its own distinctive rules and 
customs. Joe Toms walks up Chancery Lane 'with that quick jerk and impatient 
stride which distinguishes a lover of the fancy'; in the coach to the fight Ha- 
zlitt meets a man 'whose costume bespoke him one of the fancy'; on the way 
back he describes his friend, Pigott, as being 'dressed in character for the occa- 
sion, or like one of the fancy; that is, with a double portion of great coats, clogs, 
and overhauls'. It is only on the journey home that Hazlitt himself is properly 
'dressed in character'; Pigott supplies him with a 'genteel drab great coat and 


green silk handkerchief (which I must say became me exceedingly).' The cos- 
tume gives him the confidence to deride a group of 'Goths and Vandals . . . not 
real flash-men, but interlopers, noisy pretenders, butchers from Tothillfields, 
brokers from Whitechapel' who brashly interrupt a discussion of the respec- 
tive merits of roasted fowl and mutton-chops. The essay ends with him reluc- 
tantly returning these clothes. So far, so Pierce Egan. 

Like Egan, Hazlitt relished flash language. 'The Fight' is littered with 
italicized idioms: 'turn-up', 'swells', 'the scratch', 'pluck'. But the great literary 
virtue of an essay is that it does not have to stick to one kind of performance. 
Hazlitt rapidly expands his repertoire of allusion beyond Homer, Shakespeare, 
and Milton. His allusions politicize pugilism. They enhance its democratic 
credentials. Riding in the coach with Toms, he recites, 'in an involuntary fit of 
enthusiasm', some lines of Spenser on delight and liberty; Toms promptly 
translates these 'into the vulgate' as meaning 'Going to see a fight'. The connection 
between boxing, sentiment and (political as well as psychological) liberty is 
reinforced on the return journey, when Pigott reads out passages from 
Rousseau's NewEloise. And if literature can enhance an appreciation of boxing, 
boxing also has literary potential. Hazlitt is enchanted by the conversation of a 
man he meets in the pub, and tells him that he talks as well as Cobbett writes. 
Perhaps in response to his critics, Hazlitt makes it clear that sporting interests 
are not the preserve of Tory squires; middle-class radicals can make them urban, 
modern and sophisticated. 

Hazlitt 's pleasure in joining this convivial, masculine world is palpable. 
This had been his first fight, he announces at the beginning of the essay, 'yet it 
more than answered my expectations'. But what were those expectations? In 
'On Going A Journey', published four months earlier, Hazlitt had written of the 
desire to 'forget the town and all that is in it'. In the town was his landlady's 
daughter, Sarah Walker, whose charms and unfaithfulness form the subject of 
an autobiographical meditation, Liber Amoris (1823). She is never mentioned 
here, but Hazlitt does occasionally (and rather cryptically) evoke his misery. 
The essay begins by dedicating what follows to 'Ladies'. He compliments 'the 
fairest of the fair' and the loveliest of the lovely' and entreats them to 'notice the 
exploits of the brave'. But a rather sour note emerges when he urges ladies to 
consider 'how many more ye kill with poison baits than ever fell in the ring'. 
These words gain a poignant resonance when we consider that an early draft of 
the essay contained a passage about his lovelorn wretchedness. David Bromwich 
argues that an awareness of this passage reveals 'the under-plot' of the essay 
and explains its 'impetuous pace' and 'arbitrary high spirits'. 52 

'The Fight' tells the story of a man who is almost successful at escaping him- 
self. If romance is a 'hysterica passio, the Fancy is 'the most practical of all things', 
and its emphasis on mundane facts - its thoroughly English empiricism - dis- 
tracts him most of the time. 53 'The fancy are not men of imagination', he is 
pleased to note. Occasionally, though, he slips back into self-pity. After describ- 
ing the pleasures of the training regime, he cannot help adding: 


'Is this life not more sweet than mine?' I was going to say; but I will not 
libel any life by comparing it to mine, which is (at the date these pres- 
ents) bitter as coloquintida and the dregs of aconitum! 

But such passages of lovesick rhetoric (passages common in Liber Amoris) are in- 
frequent. As long as he can talk of boxing and mutton-chops, love and London 
can be kept at bay: 

A stranger takes his hue and character from the time and place. He is 
a part of the furniture and costume of an inn ... I associate nothing 
with my travelling companion but present objects and passing events. 
In his ignorance of me and my affairs, I in a manner forget myself. 54 

Hazlitt's language of the blow provided him with a means to compare poets 
and politicians to athletes and (democratically) to judge one against the other. 55 
The 'blows' of John Cavanagh, the fives-player, for example, were 'not undecided 
and ineffectual', unlike Coleridge's 'wavering' prose. 56 Hazlitt also judged his own 
work by the standard of sport, and sometimes found it lacking. 'What is there 
that I can do as well as this?' he once asked on observing some Indian jugglers. 
'Nothing', was his reply. 'I have always had this feeling of the inefficacy and slow 
progress of intellectual compared to mechanical excellence, and it has always made 
me somewhat dissatisfied.' 57 'I have a much greater ambition to be the best racket- 
player, than the best prose-writer of the age.' 58 But most of the time, Hazlitt did 
believe that prose could eventually achieve its own excellence, comparable (among 
other things) to relation between parts in the Elgin marbles; 'one part being given, 
another cannot be otherwise than it.' 59 'The Fight' ends with a 'p.s.', in which Ha- 
zlitt agrees with his friend Toms's description of the fight as 'a complete thing'. 
The last sentence - 'I hope he will relish my account of it' - suggests that the essay 
is consciously striving to be something equally 'complete', something in which all 
the parts harmoniously create a whole (however ephemeral). 


In the same month that 'The Fight' appeared, Hazlitt published the first of three 
essays on the Elgin Marbles. His remarks there, and elsewhere, directly attack 
Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses (1769-1790), which argued that the beauty of 
a work of art was 'general and intellectual': 'the sight never beheld it, nor has the 
hand expressed it: it is an idea residing in the breast of the artist'. 60 On this 
view, the artist is completely divorced from the craftsman who works with his 
eyes, hands and materials. Hazlitt, on the other hand, emphasized the ways in 
which art resembled craft and sport - and in all these spheres genius could 
emerge. One of the pleasures of painting, he maintained, was that, unlike writ- 
ing, it 'exercises the body' and requires 'a continued and steady exertion of 
muscular power'. The best paintings, and sculptures, were those in which the 


muscular power of both sitter and artist remain apparent. The Elgin Marbles 'do 
not seem to be the outer surface of a hard and immovable block of marble, but 
to be actuated by an internal machinery'; in Hogarth's pictures, 'every feature 
and muscle is put into full play.' Both are 'the reverse of still life'; both are com- 
parable to the 'harmonious, flowing, varied prose' of the essayist. 61 

Hazlitt frequently included Hogarth in his pantheon of English geniuses, all 
of whom rejected notions of the ideal in order to grapple with matter as it is 
and who defined beauty in democratic and empirical terms. 'The eye alone must 
determine us in our choice of what is most pleasing to itself,' Hogarth wrote in 
The Analysis of Beauty (1753), and in that choice, sports fans have at least as good 
an eye as sculptors or anatomists: 

Almost everyone is farther advanced in the knowledge of this specula- 
tive part of proportion that he imagines; especially he hath been inter- 
ested in the success of them; and the better he is acquainted with the 
nature of the exercise itself, still the better the judge he becomes of the 
figure that is to perform it. 

In terms that would be echoed in the twentieth century by Bertolt Brecht and 
Ezra Pound, Hogarth argued against aesthetic contemplation as a disinterested 
activity. The more interested the spectator is (by which he presumably means 
the more money he has wagered) the better his judgment is. 

For this reason, no sooner are two boxers stript to fight, but even a 
butcher, thus skill'd, shews himself a considerable critic in proportion; 
and on this sort of judgment often gives, or takes the odds, at bare sight 
only of the combatants. I have heard a blacksmith harangue like an 
anatomist, or sculptor, on the beauty of a boxer's figure, tho' not per- 
haps in the same terms . . . 

Too many contemporary artists, Hogarth maintained, learn about the human 
body by looking at sculpture (particularly classical sculpture) rather than by 
looking at people. 

I firmly believe, that one of our common proficients in the athletic art, 
would be able to instruct and direct the best sculptor living, (who hath 
not seen, or is wholly ignorant of this exercise) in what would give the 
statue of an English-boxer, a much better proportion, as to character, 
than is to be seen, even in the famous group of antique boxers, (or as 
some call them, Roman wrestlers) so much admired to this day. 62 

Hogarth is referring to a sculpture, now knows as 'The Wrestlers', which 
was much praised and studied by the English Academicians, and formed the 
basis for an extensive discussion of muscles in both Joshua Reynolds's Tenth 


Discourse (1780) and John Flaxman's Lectures on Sculpture (1829). 63 Small bronze 
copies were widely disseminated. 64 In order to understand and thus represent 
human movement, Flaxman argued, the sculptor must understand anatomy, 
geometry and mechanics: 

The forced action of the boxers renders the muscular configuration of 
their shoulders so different in appearance from moderate action and 
states of rest, that we derive a double advantage from the anatomical 
consideration of their forms: first, we shall learn the cause of each par- 
ticular form, and, secondly, we shall be convinced how rationally and 
justly the ancients copied nature. 65 

Hogarth, meanwhile, had looked to Figg, Broughton and George Taylor as 
his models. Two years before writing the Analysis, he had produced a series of 
drawings of the dying Taylor (supposedly intended for his tombstone), 
including Death giving George Taylor a Cross-Buttock and George Taylor Breaking 
the Ribs of Death (illus. 20). But it was Figg ('more of a slaughtererthan ... a neat, 
finished pugilist') who especially appealed to Hogarth, not only as an exemplar 
of English vigour and honesty, but also as a fellow modern urban professional. 66 
Figg appeared in several of Hogarth's satirical paintings and prints: in 
Southwark Fair (1732) he sits grimly upon a blind horse in the right-hand corner, 
in A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733) he is sprawled drunkenly in the 
foreground, and in plate two of The Rake's Progress (1735), 'Surrounded by Artists 
and Professors', he is pushed into the background by a dandyish French fencing 
master. 67 

William Hogarth, 
George Taylor's Epi- 
taph: George Taylor 
Breaking the Ribs of 
Death, pen and ink 
over pencil and 
chalk, c. 1750. 


Fifty years on, boxing was much more respectable than it had been in Hog- 
arth's day, and Hazlitt noted approvingly that the actor Edmund Kean was not 
ashamed to admit to 'borrow[ing] . . . from the last efforts of Painter in his fight 
with Oliver' in his portrayal of Richard ill's final moments. 68 Next door to the 
Fives Court, retired prize-fighter Bill Richmond ran the Horse and Dolphin, a 
pub where he was said to have initiated the fashion of sparring bare-chested in 
order that spectators could admire the muscular development of the fighters. 
Various members of the nearby Royal Academy, including Benjamin Haydon 
and the President, Joseph Farington, frequented the Fives Court and Horse and 
Dolphin, but more often the boxers posed at the Academy's life classes. 69 Far- 
ington's diary for 19 June 1808 records a visit to the home of his friend Dr 
Anthony Carlisle, soon to be elected Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, 
where the company were presented with 'Gregson, the Pugilist, stripped naked 
to be exhibited to us on acct. of the fineness of His form '. Farington's approach 
is not that of Hogarth, or Hazlitt. The real is only interesting in its relation to the 
ideal. Gregson the pugilist quickly becomes Gregson the anatomical specimen, 
the classical approximation: 

All admired the beauty of His proportions from the Knee or rather from 
the waist upwards, including His arms, & small head. The Bone of His 
leg West Sd [side] is too short & His toes are not long enough & there 
is something of heaviness abt the thighs - Knees & legs, - but on the 
whole He was allowed to be the finest figure the persons present had 
seen. He was placed in many attitudes. 70 

While Hogarth was always concerned about proportion in relation to function 
('fitness') - what 'dimensions of muscle are proper (according to the principle 
of the steelyard) to move such or such a length of arm with this or that degree 
of swiftness of force' - the Academicians had very little interest in the use of the 
bones and muscles they were contemplating. 71 Boxers were to be admired to 
the extent that their bodies approximated pre-determined ideals of beauty, not 
because they worked well. Ben Marshall's portrait of Jackson, copied as a mezzo- 
tint by Charles Turner in 1810, positions the clothed prize-fighter beside a clas- 
sical sculpture. We cannot help comparing their legs (illus. 21). 

Ten days after Farington first saw Gregson, the party reassembled at Lord 
Elgin's house to see him 'naked among the Antique figures', the newly arrived 
fragments of the Panthenon frieze now known as the Elgin Marbles. As soon as 
the fighters arrived, one recalled, 'ancient art and the works of Phidias were for- 
gotten'. 72 At the end of July, four of the leading fighters of the day -Jackson, 
Belcher, Gulley and Dutch Sam - were brought to Elgin's for a 'Pugilistick 
Exhibition'. Farington noted that the sculptor John Rossi particularly admired 
Dutch Sam's figure 'on account of the Symmetry & the parts being expressed', and 
Sam is thought to be the model for Rossi's 1828 sculpture, Athleta Britannicus 
(illus. 22). 73 An attempt at pure classicism, we have no idea when looking at the 



Charles Turner 
after Benjamin 
Marshall, Mr John 
Jackson, 1810. 

sculpture that the model was a nineteenth-century Jew from the East End of 
London. 74 

The pugilist's identity is also not apparent in Sir Thomas Lawrence's por- 
traits of his childhood friend, John Jackson. The first, exhibited at the Royal 
Academy exhibition of 1797, featured him, twice-lifesize, as Satan Summoning 
His Legions, to illustrate Milton's line, 'Awake, arise, or be forever fallen.' 75 As 
Peter Radford notes, the painting makes an 'obvious boxing pun about having 
been knocked down and having to get up', but this was for private consump- 
tion. While the body was Jackson's - Egan had described him as 'one of the best 
made men in the kingdom'; others praised his 'small' joints, 'knit in the man- 
ner which is copied so inimitably in many of the statues and paintings of 
Michelangelo' - the face was that of the actor, John Kemble. 76 The same combina- 
tion featured in an 1800 painting of Rolla, from Sheridan's Pizarro. 71 Jackson's 



Charles Rossi, 
Athleta Britannka, 


Les Boxeurs, 
1818, lithograph. 

muscular body was a useful starting point from which to paint grand subjects; 
his face, and profession, were not important. 

Historical context returned, to be married with classical precedent, in the 
most widely known boxing image of the early nineteenth century, Theodore Geri- 
cault 's lithograph Les Boxeurs (illus. 23). On the one hand, it makes reference to 
contemporary events and setting. The boxers, dressed in modern clothes, are 
usually taken to be Cribb and Molineaux, and we can pick out a few men in suits 
and one in a prominent top hat in the crowd. Two beer tankards are prominently 
placed in the bottom right-hand corner. The anglophile Gericault had not 
attended either fight between the two men - he first visited England in 1820 - but 
he would have witnessed boxing matches in the Paris studio of painter Horace 
Vernet, a rendezvous for Restoration liberals, and perhaps, more importantly, 
he was familiar with English sporting engravings. His decision to depict the scene 
in a lithograph also signalled a commitment to the contemporary. Lithography 
was then a new technique and was associated mainly with political satire and 
other forms of ephemera. 78 

Gericault differs from Hogarth, however, in that he fuses references to the 
modern scene with allusions to classical and Renaissance art; he had recently 
returned to Paris after some years in Italy. Michelangelo's influence, in particu- 
lar, is apparent in the sharp contours, strained poses, bulging muscles and 
heroic stylization of the fighters. 79 Several spectators are also portrayed naked 
to the waist. Most striking is one in the left foreground -perhaps having just 



Gericault, Two 
Boxers Facing Left, 

been defeated himself? - who lies in a languid classical pose practically at the 
fighters' feet. The mixture of realist and classical conventions is disconcert- 
ing, but allows Gericault to present the fight as both sharply contemporary and 
grandly mythical. 

Les Boxeurs positions its opponents very deliberately in the centre of the 
work, in identical monumental stances. They are static, unlike the fighters in 
Gericault 's more naturalistic pencil and pen studies of the same year (illus. 24). 
The black man wears white trousers; the white man's trousers have black stripes. 
Gericault is obviously interested in tonal contrast, an interest that would be 
revived in George Bellows 's depictions of interracial boxing a hundred years later. 
But Gericault 's time, and his politics, were different from Bellows 's. Black men 
also feature in Gericault 's great paintings of 1819, The African Slave and The Raft 
of the Medusa, works that are often discussed in the context of liberal campaigns 
against France's complicity in the slave trade, and Toussaint L'Ouverture's heroic 
rebellion in Haiti. 80 In most images of the contest between Cribb and Molin- 
eaux, the American appeared as little more than a caricature, often barefooted, 
'blackamoor' (illus. 47). In Gericault 's lithograph, he is not only complementary 
but absolutely equal to his opponent; here, it seems possible that he might win. 


Works of the early twenties, such as Hazlitt's 'The Fight' (1822), Egan's Life 
in London (1821) and John Hamilton Reynolds's The Fancy (1820) celebrated 
a cultural moment that was coming to an end. An elegiac air infects their 


exuberance. In 1818, Reynolds abandoned poetry (and boxing) to become a 
lawyer, and in 1820, about to marry, and with his good friend, Keats, very ill, he 
wrote The Fancy as a 'final parting with his youth, his poetry, and the forbidden 
delights of youth'. 81 But if Londoners were leaving the Fancy behind, out-of- 
towners were becoming increasingly interested. London's sporting pubs were 
fast becoming tourist attractions, and places like the Castle Tavern in Holborn 
assumed legendary status. 

In Howarth in Yorkshire, the Bronte children were keen readers of Black- 
wood's Magazine, which was passed to them by a neighbour until 1831. One of 
their parodies, The Young Men's Magazine, included an 'Advertisement' by 
Charlotte and Branwell, issuing a challenge to 'a match at fisty-cuffs'. 82 Their 
juvenilia is populated by young noblemen, always 'masters of the art', who set 
at each other 'in slashing style'. 83 Charlotte eventually lost interest, but Branwell 
continued to read Blackwood's and Bell's Life. Numerous references to, and 
sketches of, his pugilistic heroes can also be found in his letters. 84 

Bronte could not decide whether he wanted to be a painter or a poet. The 
poems he submitted to Blackwood's were always rejected. In July 1835, he wrote 
a letter to the Royal Academy of Art asking for an interview. His biographers 
have debated whether he actually sent this letter, and whether, as a result, he vis- 
ited London the following month. He claimed that he went. The uncertainty 
stems from the detailed account of London adventures he gave on his supposed 
return. Juliet Barker, who doubts the trip took place, maintains that Bronte's 
impressions of the Castle Tavern, and his account of conversations with its land- 
lord, Tom Spring, were lifted straight from the pages of Egan's Boxiana and Book 
of Sports (1832), which gives a particularly lively and detailed description of the 
tavern and its patrons. 85 

A country boy who really did visit the pilgrimage sights of the Fancy was the 
poet John Clare. On his third visit to London in 1824, Clare was taken by the 
painter Oliver Rippingille to the Castle Tavern, and to Jack Randall's Hole in 
the Wall in Chancery Lane - where Hazlitt's 'The Fight' begins - and to see some 
sparring at the Fives Court. Clare later recalled: 

I caught the mania so much from Rip for such things that I soon became 
far more eager for the fancy than himself and I watch'd the appearance 
of every new Hero on the stage with as eager curosity [sic] to see what 
sort of fellow he was as I had before done the Poets - and I left the place 
with one wish strongly in uppermost and that was that I was but a Lord 
to patronize Jones the Sailor Boy who took my fancy as being the finest 
fellow in the Ring. 86 

Iain McCalman and Maureen Perkins speculate that Clare may also have 
attended one of the numerous theatrical adaptations of Egan's Life in London, 
and argue that 'there can be little doubt that he modelled his own metropolitan 
tourist programmes on the "sprees and larks" of Egan's fictional heroes'. 87 


In the Northampton asylum in which he spent the last years of his life, Clare 
adopted many pseudonyms and alter egos, including those of some of the prize- 
fighters he had watched on that trip to London. Inventing new names was of 
course a speciality of prize-fighters, but Jonathan Bate speculates that 'the per- 
sona of the pugilist became Clare's stance of defiance' in the violent atmosphere 
of the asylum. 88 Clare was seen shadow-boxing in his cell, crying out 'I'm Jones 
the Sailor Boy', and 'I'm Tom Spring', or, as 'Jack Randall Champion of the Prize 
Ring', issuing a 'Challenge to All the World' for 'A Fair Stand Up Fight'. 89 On 
one occasion Clare (soon to write his own 'Child Harold' and 'Don Juan a Poem') 
even referred to himself as 'Boxer Byron / made of Iron, alias / Box-iron / At 
Spring-field.' 90 The personae of Box-iron and Boxer (Lord) Byron pull in differ- 
ent directions: Clare wanted to be both the self-made working-class prize-fighter 
and the kind of Lord who patronized such men. But his assumption of these 
roles brought no relief from his isolation and increasing alienation from both 
worlds. One letter (to an unidentified and possibly imaginary correspondent) 
laments that although 'It is well known that I am a prize-fighter by profession 
and a man that has never feared any body in my life either in the ring or out of 
it . . . there is none to accept my challenges which I have from time to time given 
to the public.' 91 

Two months before he died, an ailing Branwell Bronte wrote to Joseph Ley- 
land, signing off with the remark that he was 'nearly worn out'. The letter was 
accompanied by a sketch of a man lying in bed and a skeleton standing over 
him. The skeleton is saying that 'the half minute time's up, so come to the 
scratch; won't you?' The prostrate man replies, 'Blast your eyes, it's no use, for 
I cannot come', and above is written - 'Jack Shaw, the Guardsman, and Jack 
Painter of Norfolk'. Painter had been defeated by Shaw in 1815 (just weeks 
before Shaw died heroically at Waterloo). The fight was largely memorable for 
Painter's courageous resilience: he 'received ten knock-down blows in succes- 
sion; and, although requested to resign the battle, not the slightest chance 
appeared in his favour, he refused to quit the ring till nature was exhausted'. 92 

Branwell Bronte, a painter himself, died in 1848, and John Clare followed 
in 1864. Both men lasted longer than the Fives Court; built in 1802 at the start 
of pugilism's vogue, it was pulled down in 1826 as part of the development of 
Trafalgar Square (illus. 49). The golden age of boxing was over. 


Fighting, Rightly Understood' 

'Modern legislation is chiefly remarkable for its oppressive interference with 
the elegant amusements of the mob,' complained Punch, tongue largely in 
cheek, in 1841. 

Bartholomew-fair is abolished; bull-baiting, cock-pits, and duck-hunts 
are put down by act of Parliament; prize-fighting, by the New Police . . . 
The 'masses' see no pleasure now. 1 

The establishment of Robert Peel's New Police in 1829 had gradually made it 
possible to enforce a series of legal judgments to outlaw the prize-ring. But these 
judgments did little more than confirm the shift in public attitudes to the sport. 
By the time of Victoria's accession in 1837, prize-fighting was firmly in decline. 
Pugilists had served as ushers at George iv's coronation in 1821, but the patron- 
age of Queen Victoria or the presence of her Prince Consort at ringside was 
unthinkable. Respectable middle-class society saw no place for an unruly sport 
favoured by an alliance of the working and upper classes (the 'bawling, hustling, 
and smashing' Populace and the 'great broad-shouldered' Barbarians, as 
Matthew Arnold put it), while evangelical Christianity stressed its brutish 
nature. 2 Only 30 years earlier, newspapers had extolled the manly virtues of 
pugilism; now they stressed its physical and moral dangers. The New Sporting 
Magazine, founded by R. S. Surtees in 1834, announced in its prospectus that 
'prize-fighting, Bull-baiting and Cock-fighting' were low and demoralizing pur- 
suits' and would be excluded from its pages. 3 In their place Surtees substituted 
the 'jaunts and jollities' of riding and hunting. 

A series of scandals ranging from thrown fights to murder was partly to 
blame. In 1824 fight-promoter John Thurtell was hanged for the murder of a 
gambling associate and the trial made sensational news; a few months later 
magistrates stopped a fight ('if it could be so termed', said Egan) at Moulsey 
Hurst and arrested both fighters. 4 The following year even Hazlitt admitted that 
'the Fancy have lately lost something of their gloss in public estimation; and, 
after the last fight, few would go far to see a Neate or a Spring set-to'. 5 In the 


years that followed the pugilists themselves tried to improve matters - Spring, 
for example, set up the Fair Play Club in 1828 - but without aristocratic backing 
and finance, the boxers lacked the necessary authority to regulate their sport. 
'When honour and fame cease to influence the combatants,' lamented Vincent 
Dowling, editor of Bell's Life, 'a system of low gambling is substituted.' 6 

Many also considered large gatherings of unruly fight fans to be threaten- 
ing, as large-scale popular protest, from the Luddites to the Chartists, continued 
into the 1820s. William Cobbett had noted in 1805 that boxing matches do not 
merely 'give rise to assemblages of people; they tend to make the people bold'. 7 
But without an obvious foreign enemy, such boldness was no longer welcome. 
Increasingly, reforming magistrates clamped down on those involved in staging 
fights. They even began to appear in this capacity in novels. In Dickens's The 
Pickwick Papers (1836-7), George Nupkins boasts of having 'rushed into a prize- 
ring . . . attended only by six special constables; and, at the hazard of falling a 
sacrifice to the angry passions of an infuriated multitude, prohibited a pugilis- 
tic contest between the Middlesex Dumpling, and the Suffolk Bantam'. 8 The 
magistrate in George Borrow 's Lavengro (1851), meanwhile, confesses that 
although 'of course, I cannot patronize the thing very openly, yet I sometimes 
see a prize-fight'. 9 In Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), set in 
the 1840s, the town's Roman Amphitheatre is described as a popular venue for 
'pugilistic encounters' because it is 'secluded' and 'entirely invisible to the out- 
side world save by climbing to the top of the enclosure'. 10 

The era of the great boxers also seemed to be over. New champions such as 
Tom Spring continued to attract a following, but the tone of much journalism 
was resolutely elegiac. A newspaper account of Spring's defeat of the aging Tom 
Oliver on 20 February 1821 (a fight attended by the schoolboy William Glad- 
stone, bunking off from Eton), described the pair as 'first-raters of the present 
day' but greatly inferior to their predecessors. 11 The great fighters, and com- 
mentators, of the Regency died soon afterwards: 'Gentleman John' Jackson in 
1845; Tom Cribb in 1848; Pierce Egan in 1849; and Tom Spring in 1851, the year 
in which, in Lavengro, George Borrow lamented the passing of the great days of 

I have known the time when a pugilistic encounter between two noted 
champions was almost considered in the light of a national affair; when 
tens of thousands of individuals, high and low, meditated and brooded 
upon it, the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, until 
the great event was decided. But the time is passed, and people will say, 
thank God that it is; all I have to say is, that the French still live on the 
other side of the water, and are still casting their eyes hitherward - and 
that in the days of pugilism it was no vain boast to say, that one English- 
man was a match for two of t'other race; at present it would be a vain 
boast to say so, for these are not the days of pugilism. 12 



Although the Molineaux-Cribb fights had generated much British excitement 
in 1810, for 'the first quarter of the nineteenth century most Americans were 
unaware that boxing matches even took place in their country'. 13 In the decades 
that followed, however, ever-increasing numbers of immigrants began to estab- 
lish the sport. An Irishman vs. an Englishman was a reliable crowd-puller, but 
very few of the early immigrants made a living through prize-fighting. 

During the 1830s, some British fighters, facing ever-more limited opportu- 
nities at home, decided to cross the Atlantic to capitalize on budding Ameri- 
can interest in bare-knuckle bouts. The first to make the journey was James 
('Deaf') Burke, who had been unable to find an opponent since a 98-round bat- 
tle ended in his adversary's death. Burke arrived in New York in 1836, where he 
appeared on stage at Conklin's Hall 'as the Venetian statue' - poses included 
'Hercules struggling with the Nemean lion, in five attitudes' and 'Samson slay- 
ing the Philistines with a jaw bone'. 14 The following year he had two fights 
against Irishmen; one in New Orleans, which degenerated into chaos (Irish sup- 
porters attacked Burke, accusing him of unfair play), and the other on Hart's 
Island, New York, which he easily won. The New York Herald reported the sec- 
ond match with showy reluctance; although we 'regret and detest' the kind of 
exhibition the British are so fond of, the paper declared, 'our duty as chroni- 
clers compels us to make public what otherwise we should bury in oblivion'. 15 

While Burke had been in America, a quick-witted Nottingham fighter called 
William Thompson, or more usually Bendigo, had emerged as a real contender 
for the Championship. Burke fought Bendigo on his return to England in 1839, 
but was disqualified for head-butting; Bendigo lost the championship to Ben 
Caunt in 1842, and regained it from him in 1845 (both were bitterly contested 
fights). In 1850, he retired from the ring and, in a development considered to be 
a sign of the times, became a Methodist preacher. 16 

Burke and Bendigo are both mentioned in Herman Melville's 1851 novel, 
Moby-Dick. While there is no evidence that Melville attended any of their fights, 
these were widely reported in the American press. Certainly Melville felt that 
Bendigo was well enough known to refer to him in an 1847 letter to a sick cousin 
in Rio: 'come back to us again and send a challenge across the water to fight 
Bendigo for the Champion's Belt of all England'. 17 

Nationalist bravado also informs Chapter 37 of Moby-Dick, which ends with 
a famous passage in which Captain Ahab challenges the 'great gods' to 'swerve' 
him from his goal of taking revenge on the White Whale to whom he had lost 
a leg. In evoking his 'fixed purpose', Ahab compares himself to a train: 'Over 
unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, 
unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way! ' Less 
often noted is Ahab's comparison of the unswerving nature of a train on its iron 
way to a boxer facing his opponent. Ahab begins his soliloquy by evoking his 


own 'steel skull . . . the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering 
fight!' He then addresses 'ye great gods' directly: 

I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes 
and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies, - Take 
some one of your one size: don't pommel me! No, ye've knocked me 
down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from 
behind your cotton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye; come and see 
if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? Ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve 
yourselves! Man has ye there. 18 

Ahab's claim that the English bruiser gods will not be able to stop his advance on 
the whale is pure (and characteristic) bluster. Only a few years later, however, an 
American boxer, with a more credible claim to be unswervable, appeared on the 
scene. In 1858, the Irish-American fighter John C. Heenan sent a real 'challenge 
across the water', not to Bendigo but to the then 'Champion of England', Tom 

In January i860 Heenan set off for England carrying a considerable burden 
of expectation. He appealed to both ethnic and national loyalties - to Irish- 
Americans, he was fighting as 'a son of Erin', to American-born nativists (many 
of whom had supported his opponents at home), Heenan was now a represen- 
tative of 'Uncle Sammy', a defender of 'dear Columbia's pride'. 19 (A similarly 
convenient move took place 100 years later when, by taking on the German 
Max Schmeling, Joe Louis became an American' as well as a 'Negro' fighter.) 

In England, meanwhile, the Heenan-Sayers fight was greeted as the begin- 
ning of a 'Great Pugilistic Revival'; in truth, however, it represented old-style 
English pugilism's last stand. 20 This round of Britain vs. the United States dif- 
fered in many ways from that which had taken place 50 years earlier. Steadily if 
slowly growing in the United States, prize-fighting had continued to decline in 
Britain, a shift in the balance of power reflected in the fact that it was now an 
English David (5ft 8in and 150 pounds) who was to face an American Goliath 
(4 inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier). Heenan, named for his home- 
town as the 'Benicia Boy', was also nine years younger than Sayers. 21 While 
much of the American press looked forward to a test of national supremacy, 
the British press treated the event as a brutal anachronism and campaigned to 
stop it taking place. The Manchester Guardian, for example, argued against the 
association of healthy 'muscular art' with the 'unhealthy excitement' which sur- 
rounded prize-fighting: 

The fighters . . . perform their part for money; not to develop their 
manly energies; nor do they assist in developing the physical powers 
of those around them. Instead of going to witness a prize-fight, let 
men don the gloves and learn and practice the art of fighting for 
themselves. 22 


The rhetoric intensified, culminating in a parliamentary debate four days before 
the fight took place. One mp called for the Home Secretary and the Prime Min- 
ister to intervene and stop what was clearly a 'meditated breach of the peace'. 
Pursuing what he described as a 'moderate path', Palmerston argued that he 
could see no reason why a prize-fight should constitute a greater breach of the 
peace than a 'balloon ascent'. 23 

Heenan vs. Sayers went ahead on 17 April i860, in Farnborough, Hamp- 
shire, the town having been chosen partly because of its excellent rail links. 24 
Thousands of spectators attended. After 37 rounds, over two hours, and many 
injuries - Heenan was reduced to near-blindness in his right eye - the contest 
ended in chaos and a draw was declared. 25 Although Bell's Life cheerfully 
debated who had come off worse, concluding that 'Heenan's mug was decidedly 
the most disfigured', the extreme violence of the fight shocked many. 26 The New 
York Herald, meanwhile, complained that 'the Britons . . . stopped the fight in 
order to save their money': 

Let Mr. Bull, who seems to be growing old and shaky about his pins, 
keep his five-pound notes - we are rich enough to do without them. 
We do not really want his money, but simply desired to let him know 
that we could whip him in a matter of muscle as well as in yachts, clip- 
per ships, steamboats, india-rubber shoes and other things, city rail- 
ways, sewing machines, the electric telegraph, reading machines, pretty 
women, and unpickable bank locks. 27 

The following month, in an essay on his walks into 'shy neighbourhoods', 
Charles Dickens, as 'the uncommercial traveller', noted 'the fancy of a humble artist' 
in small shop windows, 'as exemplified in two portraits representing Mr Thomas 
Sayers, of Great Britain, and Mr John Heenan, of the United States of America': 

These illustrious men are highly coloured, in fighting trim and fighting 
attitude. To suggest the pastoral and meditative nature of their peaceful 
calling, Mr Heenan is represented by an emerald sward with primroses 
and other modest flowers springing up under the heels of his half-boots; 
while Mr Sayers is impelled to the administration of his favourite blow, 
the Auctioneer, by the silent eloquence of a village church. The humble 
homes of England, with their domestic virtues and honeysuckle porches, 
urge both heroes to go in and win; and the lark and other singing birds 
are observable in the upper air, ecstatically carolling their thanks to 
Heaven for a fight. On the whole, the associations entwined with the 
pugilistic art by this artist are much in the manner of Izaak Walton. 28 

Dickens's target is, as ever, hypocrisy and affectation: not boxing itself, but 
attempts to take the edge off a violent sport by wrapping it in a highly romanti- 
cized pastoralism. 


ft &^te$& <tdte&V*& 


TXD 8JUDAT T""" 1 <fSX TU T*MMTTy^T" M ™**- 
■UlrCtir JflHN fl HMBAK "MIC Itwtn »!»• iTg« J"fM t..«nri» Jir imumi 1 


Currier and Ives, 
7fo Great Fight for 
the Championship: 
Between John C. 
Heenan 'TheBenicia 
Boy' and Tom Sayers 
'Champion of 
England', i860, 

In the months that followed, portraits of the fighters and depictions of the 
fight itself gained wide circulation. The New York Illustrated News even sent over 
an engraver to pick up ringside drawings so that he could prepare the blocks 
on the trans-Atlantic voyage for immediate printing. 29 Two of the most widely 
circulated prints were by J. B. Rowbotham and Currier and Ives; both are rather 
formal images of the boxers squaring off before the contest begins. Intended to 
commemorate an energetic and violent occasion, they are, ironically, static and 
peaceful (illus. 25). One of these prints catches the eye of Stephen Dedalus in 
James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which is set on 16 June 1904, the day the Times 
reported the sale of the Sayers-Heenan championship belt. 30 Stephen is window- 
shopping when his eye is caught by 'a faded i860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers'. 

Staring backers with square hats stood around the roped prizering. 
The heavyweights in light loincloths proposed gently each to the other 
his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes' hearts. 31 

The inappropriate gentleness of Victorian representations of boxing was 
something that Dickens, as we have seen, took comic advantage of. Disraeli, 
too, in his 1845 novel Sybil, brought pugilism and cosy domesticity together. 
After Sybil is arrested with her radical father at a Chartist gathering, a 'kind- 
hearted inspector' takes her home rather than leaving her to languish overnight 
in prison. There his wife puts her to bed in a comfortable room decorated with 
'a piece of faded embroidery . . . and opposite it . . . portraits of [the pugilists] 
Dick Curtis and Dutch Sam, who had been the tutors of her husband, and now 
lived as heroes in his memory'. For them, there is no contradiction between the 


male (pugilistic) and female (domestic) 
arts. 32 

But if the inhabitants of 'humble homes' 
were untroubled about the compatibility of 
an interest in boxing and a devotion to larks 
and honeysuckle porches, those of less 
humble dwellings were not so sure. In the 
weeks following the fight, Punch ran a series 
of cartoons in which 'extremely proper- 
looking personages' went to great lengths 
to disguise their interest in Sayers vs. 
Heenan (illus. 26). Certainly the days of un- 
abashed flash appreciation were long gone; 
Victorian gentlemen, like Disraeli's Egre- 
mont, generally had the 'good taste not to 
let [their] predilection for sports degener- 
ate into slang'. 33 The predilection itself, 
however, did not die out. 

One proper-looking personage who 
retained a lively interest in boxing was the 
publisher John Blackwood who, a week 
after the fight, wrote to George Lewes, then 
in Rome with George Eliot: 


KH.UX Hqt Ho nqmUUt unl umuntf |irvjic-kn'kiwr iwouiuftt 
'■ ffirt / n«. Gur^er; Sfitrfim' Ttttjntft «JK»»H/ 'at y* Hli tkthtfit 
'IkUart'itml r|t Milt arm™ Tvb Sijcrj and lk< £n!cia Bo+tl* 

I have not much news from London, the fight for the Championship 
monopolizing everyone's attention. It is quite comical and I cannot 
help feeling as keen as possible about gallant little Tom Sayers with his 
one arm maintaining such a fight. I am satisfied if he had not lost the 
use of his right arm he would have polished off the giant. 





21 April i860. 

Although he begins by talking of 'everyone' as if that does not include him- 
self, and describes the brouhaha as 'quite comical', Blackwood soon slips 
into a discussion of the details of the fight. His authoritative commentary is, 
however, quickly (dis)qualified by the un-Corinthian remark, 'I never saw a 
prize fight, and I daresay five minutes conversation with the worthy Tom 
would effectually cool my enthusiasm.' 34 He had no intention of degenerat- 
ing into slang. 

Three years later the poet William Allingham expressed a similarly tempered 
enthusiasm. His diary for 6 July 1863 excitedly records a glimpse of Sayers, 
'a middle-sized but singularly well-knit figure of a man, strong, light, easy of 
movement, almost Greek in his poses but altogether natural and unconscious'. 
A few days later, having seen Sayers fight 'Young Brooks' in a Lymington cricket 
field, he expands on his reflections: 


The high-shouldered pugilist such as Leech draws is not the genuine 
article. Sayers has rather falling shoulders though wide and muscular, 
so has Heenan, and Tom King. Ease and freedom of movement charac- 
terizes them all, especially Sayers. They doubtless enjoy life in their 
way, so long as they keep within tolerable bounds, and the fighting 
itself is a great animal pleasure. 35 

Yet even while praising Sayers, both Blackwood and Allingham felt it necessary 
to distance themselves from the boxer; Blackwood by suggesting the limits of his 
conversation, Allingham by alluding to the pugilistic lifestyle and the necessity 
of keeping it 'within tolerable bounds'. William Thackeray mocked such equiv- 
ocation in his i860 'roundabout' essay on the Heenan-Sayers fight for the Corn- 
hill Magazine entitled 'On Some Late Great Victories'. 'Ought Mr. Sayers be 
honoured for being brave, or punished for being naughty?' What the Victorian 
public wanted, Thackeray complained, was to have it both ways: to say to 
'naughty' Tom Sayers, 'we are moralists, and reprimand you; and you are hereby 
reprimanded accordingly', but, at the same time, to reserve the option of chang- 
ing their minds. 'I mean that fighting, of course, is wrong; but that there are 
occasions when, &c. . .' 3<5 

Changing attitudes to boxing typified the gap between the Regency world 
that Thackeray had grown up in and the Victorian world of his adulthood. As 
a schoolboy he had loved the 'extraordinary slang' of Pierce Egan's rakish tales, 
but as an adult he recalled Tom and Jerry as 'a little vulgar'; 'brilliant but some- 
what barbarous, it must be confessed'. 'There is enjoyment of life in these young 
bucks of 1823 which contrasts strangely with our feelings of i860.' 37 Egan's tales 
of sporting gentlemen were now only to be found 'in the corner of some old 
country-house library' of a Corinthian 'grandpappa'. 38 

The vulgar energetic world of the Corinthians is immortalized in Vanity Fair 
(1845), set during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel contains many incidental ref- 
erences to the Fancy, most of which are associated with dissipated young men who 
hanker after the life of Tom and Jerry, but who don't, somehow, quite come up to 
scratch. After a drunken night at Vauxhall Gardens, for example, Jos Sedley tries 
to fight a hackney-coachman but instead is carried off to bed. The next day, his 
friends, knowing he can't remember a thing, tease Sedley that he 'hit him flat out, 
like Molyneux. The watchman says he never saw a fellow go down so straight.' 39 

The Crawley family is full of boxers. After being sent down from Cambridge, 
Rawdon Crawley becomes a 'celebrated "blood" or dandy about town': 'Boxing, 
rat-hunting, the fives-court, and four-in-hand driving were then the fashion of 
our British aristocracy; and he was adept in all these noble sciences.' When 
Becky Sharp (who will marry him) asks his sister whether he is clever, she is told 
that he has 'not an idea in the world beyond his horses, and his regiment, and 
his hunting, and his play'. Rawdon's uncle, the Reverend Bute Crawley, has sim- 
ilar tastes. While studying theology at Oxford, he 'had thrashed all the best 
bruisers of the "town"', and 'carried his taste for boxing and athletic exercises 


into life; there was not a fight within twenty miles at which he was not present' 
(illus. 51). 40 

The most fully developed portrait of an Egan-like young Buck is the Rev- 
erend's son, James Crawley, a good-looking 'young Oxonian' who has 'acquired 
the inestimable polish of living in a fast set at a small college'. Excited by a coach 
journey with 'the Tutbury Pet' and a night at Tom Cribb's Arms, where he was 
'enchanted by the Pet's conversation', he proceeds to his aunt's house to ingra- 
tiate himself into her will. There, however, he gets increasingly drunk on her 
good port, and after describing 'the different pugilistic qualities' of his favourite 
fighters, offers to take on his cousin 'with or without gloves'. This then leads to 
a disquisition on his favourite theme, 'old blood': 

There's nothing like old blood; no, dammy, nothing like it. I'm none of 
your radicals. I know what it is to be a gentleman, dammy. . . look at the 
fellers in a fight; aye, look at a dawg killing rats, - which is it wins? the 
good blooded ones. 

The more 'ruby fluid' James ingests, the stronger his devotion to good old blood 
becomes. The example of 'good blood' he provides, however, suggests that it is 
a fluid he himself lacks: 

Why, only last term, just before I was rusticated, that is, I mean just 
before I had the measles, ha, ha, - there was me and Ringwood of 
Christchurch, Bob Ringwood, Lord Cinqbar's son, having our beer at the 
'Bell' at Blenheim, when the Banbury bargeman offered to fight either of 
us for a bowl of punch. I couldn't. My arm was in a sling . . . Well, sir, I 
couldn't finish him, but Bob had his coat off at once - he stood up to the 
Banbury man for three minutes, and polished him off in four rounds, 
easy. Gad, how he did drop, sire, and what was it? Blood, sir, all blood. 41 

His aunt sends him away in disgust. 

All this pugilistic ambition, and interest, is presented as not only rather 
ridiculous, but as out of touch with modern life. For Thackeray, pugilism epit- 
omizes the profligate world of the Regency, a world that appealed to villains but 
also to students and minor army officers who refuse to grow up. 42 Captain Mc- 
Murdo is a 49-year-old 'Waterloo man' whose barracks room is 'hung around 
with boxing, sporting, and dancing pictures, presented to him by comrades as 
they retired from the regiment, and married and settled into a quiet life'. He is 
pictured sitting up in bed 'reading in Bell's Life an account of . . . [a] fight 
between the Tutbury Pet and the Barking Butcher'. 43 In Robert Browning's 1858 
poem 'A Likeness', prints of boxers are relegated to the 'spoils of youth' that 
adorn a bachelor's room, along with 'masks, gloves and foils' and 'the cast from 
a fist ("not, alas! Mine, / But my master's, the Tipton Slasher")'; in Thackeray's 
novel, such artifacts are the spoils of eternal bachelors. 44 


The suggestion that an interest in boxing is rather adolescent (and hence 
mildly deplorable) is also made in George Eliot's Middlemarch, written slightly 
later (1871), and set slightly later, just before the Reform Bill of 1832, in a small 
Midlands community. Fred Vincy, 'a young gentleman without capital' and, 
despite a university education, 'generally unskilled', finds it particularly difficult 
to find a place for himself in the modern world. But Vincy is saved from a life of 
fecklessness by the love of his childhood sweetheart, Mary Garth, and eventual 
employment in estate management with her father, Caleb. A key moment in his 
transformation comes when he chances upon six farm labourers attacking the 
agents employed to build the new railway. Vincy tries to take control from the 
safety of his horse until one of the men shouts 'a defiance which he did not know 
to be Homeric': 'Yo git off your horse, young measter, and I'll have a round wi' 
ye, I wull. You daredn't come on w'out your hoss an' whip. I'll soon knock the 
breath out on ye, I would.' Vincy, who 'felt confidence in his power of boxing', 
tells them, 'I'll come back presently, and have a round with you all in turn, if 
you like.' Both Vincy and the farm labourers have grown up in a now outmoded 
feudal world and, uncertain how to act in the modern era that the railway rep- 
resents, they easily fall back on the old (pugilistic) methods of settling disputes. 
But when Caleb Garth hears of Vincy's pugnacious intentions - 'It would be a 
good lesson for him. I shall not be five minutes' - he quickly intervenes. Garth, 
'a powerful man . . [who] knew little of any fear except the fear of hurting oth- 
ers and the fear of having to speechify', is a modern man and knows how to 
operate in the modern world. Instead of fighting and teaching 'lessons', he 
reasons with the farm workers and reassures them about the impact of the 
railway on their livelihood. 45 On the following page, Fred Vincy falls off his horse 
into the mud - his real education is beginning. 

The idealized Adam Bede, the eponymous hero of Eliot's second book, 
needs no such education. Published in 1859, but set during the Napoleonic wars, 
the novel contrasts its protagonist's fighting style with that of his rival in love, 
Arthur Donnithorne. From the opening pages of the novel, we are meant to 
admire Adam as a particularly British physical specimen: 

a large-boned muscular man nearly six feet high, with a back so flat 
and a head so well poised that when he drew himself up to take a more 
distant survey of his work, he had the air of a soldier standing at ease. 46 

Adam Bede is 'a Saxon', but with 'a mixture of Celtic blood' - a complete Briton. 
'We want such fellows as he to lick the French,' a bystander remarks. Young 
squire Arthur Donnithorne is, by contrast, 'well-washed, high-bred, white- 
handed, yet looking as if he could deliver well from the left shoulder, and floor 
his man'. A boxer at Oxford, Arthur nonetheless acknowledges that Adam 
would knock him 'into next week' if they were to 'have a battle'. 47 

As indeed happens, inevitably, when Arthur seduces Hetty Sorel, whom 
Adam loves, and then abandons her. 'If you get hold of a chap that's got no 


shame nor conscience to stop him,' Adam had once remarked, 'you must try 
what you can do by bunging his eyes up.' 48 When Adam shows himself to be 
such a chap, he and Arthur do battle. 

The delicate-handed gentleman was a match for the workman in every- 
thing but strength, and Arthur's skill in parrying enabled him to protract 
the struggle for some long moments. But between unarmed men, the 
battle is to the strong, where the strong is no blunderer, and Arthur must 
sink under a well-planted blow of Adam's, as a steel rod is broken by an 
iron bar. The blow soon came, and Arthur fell, his head lying concealed 
in a tuft of fern, so that Adam could only discern his darkly-clad body. 49 

Looked at from one perspective, this passage, published in the same year as The 
Origin of Species, presents a classic scene of what Darwin called 'the law of bat- 
tle' - instinct drives the two men to fight, 'with the instinctive fierceness of pan- 
thers', over a possible mate. 50 The very blows are forces of nature, 'like 
lightning'. From another perspective (and I would suggest, more centrally) the 
scene encapsulates class struggle, labour (represented by the industrial image 
of the blacksmith's 'iron bar') defeating feudal aristocracy (a sword-like 'steel 
rod'). This kind of scene occurs many times in Victorian fiction, with interest- 
ing variations. Here, it is worth noting that, although Adam's deference, and 
Christian pity, have returned by the beginning of the following chapter, he refuses 
to shake hands with Arthur: 'I don't forget what's owing to you as a gentleman; 
but in this thing we're man and man.' 51 

A year later, in the month of the Heenan-Sayers fight - April i860 - George 
Eliot's third book, The Mill on the Floss, was published. While Eliot used 'mill' in 
her title to refer to a building on a river, the word also had another meaning in 
boxing slang - the fight was a 'mill'. 52 These alternatives proved irresistible to 
Punch, a magazine which relished the most hackneyed of puns. The humour of 
the cartoon lies in the seemingly obvious incompatibility between the novels 
(and drawing rooms) of Victorian womanhood and the very thought of a prize- 
fight (illus. 27). 53 This was a sentiment which now was accepted even by read- 
ers of Blackwood's Magazine. 54 In this context, it was of course great fun to make 
jokes about women reading fight-reports and even, occasionally, fighting them- 
selves. Thomas Ingoldby's 1840 poem 'The Ghost' describes a man who fears 'his 
spouse might knock his head off', for 'spite of all her piety, her arm / She'd 
sometimes exercise when in a passion'. The narrator concludes, 

Within a well- roped ring, or on a stage, 

Boxing may be a very pretty Fancy, 
When Messrs. Burke or Bendigo engage; 

— 'Tis not so well in Susan, Jane, or Nancy: 
To get well mill 'd by any one's an evil, 

But by a lady - 'tis the very Devil. 55 



(literary) and Edith 
(literal)', Punch, 
28 April i860. 

£iffl*fan« IfHtnrii). " Hjivk vim pirjhOTinn Aii-imwW'Tlai !'[«■ era T11K FLOiH,' DSAitT" 
JfrtM ftorraf). "SV>, r*»*tt>, I ((.kfr. !«jt; and I tmm TIlAf TOti cm fisd iJrxmaa 
TO INTHltaT totf IK TOX LHJSMITWIf «P * DlitilWTIXU I'lmtf-lUHT ! " 

In i860, the joke seemed never ending in Punch cartoons, which showed men 
'initiating' women (readers of Belle's Life, sic), and mothers handing over their 
babies to a burly boxing tutor (illus. 28). 

The association of The Mill on the Floss with 'milling' is actually not as absurd 
as Punch had implied. A novel of childhood and adolescence, it focuses on the 
relationship between a brother and sister, Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Tom Tulliver 
is consistently depicted as a lad of honour' and a keen fighter. He particularly 
likes to read, and relate, 'fighting stories', and so his fellow pupil, Philip Wakem, 
who is said to have been 'brought up like a girl' and whose deformity makes him 
'unfit for active sports', tells him the story of Ulysses, 'a little fellow, but very wise 
and cunning', in his battle against the Cyclops, Polyphemus. '0 what fun!' says 
Tom, but his words have an ironic resonance later in the novel when, some years 
later, he accuses Philip Wakem of not 'acting the part of a man and a gentleman' 
with his sister, Maggie. Philip replies, 'It is manly of you to talk in this way to me. 
Giants have an immemorial right to stupidity and insolent abuse.' Wakem 's 
response recalls the Homer of their youth, and Tom is now cast as Cyclops. Tom's 
pugnacity exemplifies what Eliot terms 'masculine philosophy', yet it is a mas- 
culinity of a particularly limited (schoolboy) type, one whose morality is based 
on strength. However many Greek verbs he learns, Tom is unable to be anything 
other than 'an excellent bovine lad' who believes in the 'boys' justice' of the fist. 56 



'Muscular Educa- 
tion - The Private 
Tutor', Punch, 26 
May i860. 

1 Hii lit. Ux'ia ! " 

The guilt-free pleasure of eighteenth-century fight scenes was no longer 
possible for Victorian writers or readers. Fighting could not be condoned, except, 
of course, in the service of a moral cause. Happily, moral causes were not hard 
to find; so much so that in 1901 George Bernard Shaw felt able to condemn what 
he described as the 'abominable vein of retaliatory violence all through the 
literature of the nineteenth century'. 57 

An exemplary case of morally justified retaliation occurs in Chapter Five of 
Vanity Fair. This is a very different occasion from the prize-fights mocked 
elsewhere in the novel. At 'Dr Swishtail's famous school', Dobbin, the son of a 
grocer, is consistently tormented by boys only slightly more secure in their 
status. Known to them by the name of 'Figs', he is neither a dandy nor a 'bruiser'. 
Although at his happiest when left alone to read the Arabian Nights while the rest 
of the school pursue sports, Dobbin cannot ignore the spectacle of 'the great 
chief and dandy' Cuff tormenting a smaller boy. The narrator speculates that 
Dobbin may be 'revolting' against the 'exercise of tyranny' or perhaps hankers 
after revenge. Whatever the reason, his coming forth is compared to that of 
'little David' against 'brazen Goliath', and the North American colonies against 
George 111. 58 The narrator, claiming that he has not 'the pen of a Napier or a 
Bell's Life', nonetheless describes the thirteenth, and final, round of the ensuing 
fight in the manner of that sporting journal: 

It was the last charge of the Guard (that is, it would have been, only 
Waterloo had not yet taken place) - it was Ney's column breasting 
the hills of La Haye Sainte, bristling with ten thousand bayonets, and 
crowned with twenty eagles - it was the shouts of the beef-eating 


British, as leaping down the hill, they rushed to hug the enemy in the 
savage arms of battle -in other words, Cuff coming up full of pluck, 
but quite reeling and groggy, the Fig-merchant put in his left as usual 
on his adversary's nose, and sent him down for the last time. 59 

In this passage, which was to inspire similar parodies by James Joyce and Ralph 
Ellison in the twentieth century, Thackeray does more than simply show his 
familiarity both with the work of the military historian Sir William Napier 
and the popular magazine, Bell's Life in London. His target is the all too easy 
interchange between the discourses of prize-fighting and war (illus. 46). 6o 


The 1850s and '60s saw the creation of many new public schools, in which 'rep- 
resentatives of old families [mixed] with the sons of the new middle classes'. 
These schools, claims Asa Briggs, instigated 'a gradual fusion of classes', by 
'drawing upon a common store of values'. 61 Sport, placed at the heart of the cur- 
riculum, was one of the central ways in which those values were transmitted. 
Public school sporting stories became enormously popular, with Thomas 
Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) starting the trend and reinventing the 
schoolboy as a heroic character. 62 

Thomas Hughes's school was Rugby, whose headmaster, Thomas Arnold, 
epitomized the values of what became known as muscular Christianity. 63 Good 
character depended on a healthy mind in a healthy body - mens sana in corpore 
sano. 64 Although rugby and cricket are also considered, the delicate relation- 
ship between physical prowess and moral character finds its most vivid expres- 
sion in the novel's depiction of boxing. Hughes begins a chapter entitled 'The 
Fight' with a warning: 

Let those young persons whose stomachs are not strong, or who think 
a good set-to with the weapons which God has given us all, an uncivi- 
lized, unchristian, or ungentlemanly affair, just skip this chapter at 
once, for it won't be to their taste. 

The chapter chronicles Brown's initiation into muscular and manly Christian ways 
through a fight with, of course, a bigger boy. After the fight is over, Tom and 'the 
Slogger' shake hands 'with great satisfaction and mutual respect'. 'Fighting', 
Hughes concludes, 'is the natural and English way for English boys to settle their 
quarrels' (illus. 29). 65 

Throughout the next hundred years, in the pages of magazines at least, 
English boys continued to find quarrels which needed settling. In 1866 Edwin 
Brett's Boys of England was founded as 'A Magazine of Sport, Travel, Fun and 
Adventure', but it was not until 1879 and the launch of The Boy's Own Paper 
that sport became a staple of schoolboy stories. In 1948 E. S. Turner joked that 


Arthur Hughes, 
illustration for Tom 
Brown s Schooldays 
(1869 edition). 

'any historian of the remote future relying exclusively on old volumes of boys' 
magazines for his knowledge of the British way of life in the early twentieth 
century . . . will record that the country was the battleground of an unending 
civil war between a small vigorous race known as Sportsmen and a large, slug- 
gish and corrupt race known as Slackers'. 66 The battleground extended far 
beyond the school walls. After the First World War, Marvel ran a series of stories 
by Arthur S. Handy in which parsons, newspaper editors, farmers, dockers, 
millionaires, plumbers and taxi drivers all ended up as boxing heroes, while in 
the Champion, 'sport grew from a fetish to a frenzy' (illus. 57). 6? 

In his advocacy of boxing, Thomas Hughes had higher ambitions than the 
mere settling of schoolboy quarrels and desires, or the exercising of 'the temper, 
and . . . the muscles of the back and legs'. 

Every one who is worth his salt has his enemies, who must be beaten, 
be they evil thoughts and habits in himself, or spiritual wickedness in 
high places, or Russians, or Border-ruffians, or Bill, Tom, or Harry, who 
will not let him live his life in quiet till he has thrashed them. 68 

On the one hand, fighting is 'natural', especially if you are English; on the other, 


'rightly understood', it must always have a 'chivalrous' and Christian purpose 
behind it. 69 In Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), Hughes distinguished the self- 
indulgent 'muscleman' from the 'muscular Christian' who, like St Paul, brings 
his body into 'subjection'. 70 

Hughes's determination to avoid celebrating the mere 'muscleman' meant 
that for all his descriptions of sports and fighting, his works give very little sense 
of the bodies involved in them. The male body is present less as something con- 
crete and material than as a sign of, or instrument for, chivalry. This was not the 
case in the work of Hughes's near contemporary, Walter Pater, whose essays, 
from 'Winckelmann' (1867) to 'The Age of Athletic Prizemen' (1894), marked yet 
another revival of interest in Greek sculpture and the 'Hellenic ideal' of the male 
body. 71 Published just two years before the modern Olympics began, 'The Age 
of Athletic Prizemen' celebrates 'peaceful combat as a fine art': an art mani- 
fested in sculptures of athletes and their poetic equivalents, Pindar's poems, 
'sung in language suggestive of a sort of metallic beauty'. 72 For Pater the beauty 
of these works derived from their celebration of the fleeting moment: the ath- 
lete is poised 'just there for a moment, between the animal and spiritual worlds', 
between actions, and between youth and maturity. The emphasis on stillness 
('repose' is Pater's word) suggests in turn what he calls 'sexless beauty': the white 
marble statues have been 'purged from the angry, bloodlike stains of action and 
passion'. The young athletes memorialized are curiously 'virginal yet virile'. 73 
They represent the unity of unstained mind and unstained body. 

St Paul's emphasis on subjugation appealed to both Hellenists and Muscu- 
lar Christians. Pater stressed 'the religious significance of the Greek athletic 
service' and argued that 'the athletic life certainly breathes of abstinence, of rule, 
of the keeping un der of oneself \ 74 But while Hughes promoted the moral conse- 
quences of such subjugation, Pater's emphasis was aesthetic. 75 


In many different contexts in nineteenth-century Britain, Asa Briggs wrote, 
there was 'an interplay between what happened nationally and what happened 
in the schools'. 76 Common to both was the codification of sports. The Football 
Association was founded in 1863, the cricketing yearbook Wisden was first pro- 
duced in 1864, the Rugby Union rules (based on the Rugby School rules) were 
formulated in 1871, and in 1866 the Pugilists' Benevolent Association adopted 
a series of rules partly devised by the lightweight champion boxer, Arthur Cham- 
bers, but famously published, the following year, under the name of their 24- 
year-old endorser, the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas. 77 
Boxing regulations had gradually become more rigorous during Victoria's 
reign: Broughton's 1743 rules were superseded in 1838 by the London Prize Rules 
(which were revised in 1853). These specified the size of a boxing ring, the use of 
turf, the role of seconds and umpires, and outlawed head-butting, kicking and 


biting. Most importantly, they also decreed that if the contest was undecided all 
bets were off. 78 The Queensberry Rules (essentially a modified version of those 
which had governed sparring for many years) went much further towards bridg- 
ing the gap between the amateur and professional sport. All the grappling holds 
now associated with wrestling were disallowed, thus ensuring a more upright con- 
test; weight categories for boxers were to be strictly observed, and gloves, which 
had been used mainly in training, were now to be compulsory in fights. Under 
the London Prize Rules, fights were to the finish, although exhausted fighters or 
their seconds might agree to a draw (as happened after 37 rounds in the case of 
Heenan vs. Sayers). Under the Queensberry rules, there would be a set number of 
rounds (usually no more than twenty), limited to three minutes each, with one 
minute between rounds; a man who was knocked down was allowed ten seconds 
to get to his feet or lose the fight by a knockout). 

After the 1860s old-style prize-fights continued clandestinely, but they were 
no longer the national events that Sayers vs. Heenan had been. Endorsed by 
organizations such as the Amateur Athletic Club, the Queensberry rules were 
increasingly chosen over the London Prize Rules. Bare-knuckle boxing was giving 
way to boxing in its modern form. 

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Marquess of Queensberry, 
accompanied by Arthur Chambers, visited the United States for, as his grand- 
son notes, 'agreement with American supporters of the game was essential'. 79 
Queensberry 's rules came into effect slightly later in America than in Britain; 
John L. Sullivan's last contest under the London Prize Ring rules took place in 
1889. In the United States, the dichotomy between attitudes towards profes- 
sional and amateur boxing was particularly pronounced, perhaps because pro- 
fessional prize-fighting was even more violent and disorderly there. From the 
late 1840s until the Civil War, tension between 'natives' and the growing num- 
bers of Irish immigrants found expression in a series of fiercely contested fights 


Mathew Brady, 
two soldiers posed 
as boxers at a 
Federal camp 
at Petersburg, 
Virginia, April 1865. 


between various pairings of Tom Hyer, Yankee Sullivan, John Morrissey and 
John C. Heenan. The most colourful of these fighters was John Morrissey. Prize- 
fighting was only one element in what was effectively a wrong-side-of-the-tracks 
Benjamin Franklin career, ranging from street gangs to political 'shoulder-hit- 
ting' (persuading voters to make the 'right' choice) to the founding of the 
Saratoga race-track (with accompanying lucrative gambling opportunities) to 
serving two terms in Congress. Today, Morrissey is remembered for his involve- 
ment in the murder of William Poole - Bill the Butcher - the leader of a so- 
called Native American (anti-Irish) gang. Herbert Asbury told the story in 
The Gangs of New York (1927) and Martin Scorsese adapted it for the cinema 
in 2002. 8o 

The passing of legislation to outlaw prize-fighting (in Massachusetts in 
1849; in New York in 1859) coincided with a boom in sparring academies and 
cheap boxing manuals. Partly as a result of the Heenan-Sayers contest, boxing 
also became a popular form of camp recreation during the American Civil War; 
'a poignant if fleeting alternative to the ghastliness of battle' (illus. 30). 8l From 
the antebellum period onwards, working-class prize-fighting was considered 
corrupt and deplorable, while genteel sparring was welcomed as a means of 
restoring 'vigour' (a popular word particularly by the end of the century) to 
middle-class men. Reformers such Thomas Wentworth Higginson argued that 
sports such as boxing counteracted what they saw as the inherently emasculat- 
ing effects of city life. 82 'I am satisfied', announced Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 
the asthmatic Autocrat of the Breakfast Table', in 1858, 'that such a set of black- 
coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast of 
in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.' 83 
One of the delights of 'a manly self-hood' that Walt Whitman celebrated in his 
i860 'Poem of Joys' was the 'joy of the strong-brawn'd fighter, towering in the 
arena, in perfect condition, conscious of power, thirsting to meet his opponent' 
(illus. 31). 84 

In the late 1870s and '80s, Henry James created American protagonists 
whose masculinity was directly shaped by the Civil War and its aftermath. Vet- 
erans of the war like Basil Ransom (in The Bostonians, 1886) and Christopher 
Newman (in The American, 1877) were 'national types' whose instinct for battle 
had been redirected into commercial and romantic ventures. To be 'a powerful 
specimen of an American', Newman must first of all be physically fit, strong 
and vigorous. A product of 'the elastic soil of the West', he was 'not a man to 
whom fatigue was familiar'; his rhetoric, too, involves delivering blows to his 
competitors and generally putting their noses 'out of joint'. It is not simply that 
Newman's 'physical capital' correlates with his financial and moral worth; 
rather, James suggests, it is his natural physical 'vigour' that allows his other 
accomplishments. 'What should I be afraid of?', he announces, 'I am too ridicu- 
lously tough'. 85 But Basil Ransom worries that men like Newman are becoming 
rare. The 'masculine tone', he complains, is under threat. 86 Perhaps America 
was growing 'old and soft'. 87 



George A. Hayes, Bare Knuckles c. 1870-85. 


George Bellows, Business-men's Class, ymca, lithograph, 1916. 

Theodore Roosevelt wrote directly of the nationalistic (Anglo-Saxon 
American) imperative behind 'the strenuous life': 'There is no place in the world 
for nations who have become enervated by the soft and easy life, or who have 
lost their fibre of vigorous hardness and masculinity'. 88 Roosevelt also believed 
that boxing was also an ideal sport for city dwellers. 'When obliged to live in 
cities,' he wrote in his 1913 autobiography, 'I for a long time found that boxing 
and wrestling enabled me to get a good deal of exercise in condensed and 
attractive form.' But it was not only the possibility of a vigorous workout in a 
limited space that appealed. 'Powerful, vigorous men of strong animal 
development', he maintained, 'must have some way in which their animal spirits 
can find vent' (illus. 32). 89 

'box, don't fight' 

In Britain, finding vent for dangerous urban 'animal spirits' was one of the am- 
bitions of the Christian socialist movement, which Thomas Hughes founded 
with F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley. One of their earliest initiatives was a 
night school and a series of Working Men's Associations. In 1854 the evening 
classes developed into the establishment of the Working Men's College. When 
Hughes proposed to teach boxing there, Maurice was alarmed, and indeed 'was 
afraid that the fighting in Tom Brown's Schooldays might be used to justify the 
brutalities of professional prize-fighting', in particular the notorious contest 
between Sayers and Heenan. 90 

Maurice need not have worried about associations of amateur sparring with 
the dying days of bare-knuckle prize-fighting for, even in the 1860s, and even in 
Britain, the two sports were coming to be seen as radically different. 91 Hughes 
loathed prize-fighting, writing in an 1864 letter that 'fighting in cold blood for 
money is under any conditions as brutal and degrading a custom as any nation 
can tolerate'. 92 But that was not to say that 'round shoulders, narrow chests, 
stiff limbs' were to be condoned; they were 'as bad as defective grammar and 
arithmetic'. Everybody at the college had to box with Hughes, and the sparring 
classes 'grew into informal social gatherings'. 93 

In 1880, the British Amateur Boxing Association was founded with the 
motto, 'Box, don't fight', and with this in mind, social and religious reformers 
encouraged the setting up of boxing clubs in working-class areas. The violence 
of the street, it was thought, could be redirected into the gym. In his 1899 study 
of East London, Walter Besant wrote of the importance of bringing the public 
school ideal into poor neighbourhoods: 

They work off their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gym- 
nasium with the boxing-gloves and with single stick; they contract 
habits of order and discipline; they become infected with some of the 
upper-class ideals, especially as regards honor and honesty, purity and 


The language Besant uses here is suffused with, and indeed confuses, 
religious and medical imagery. Boxing would not only enact a kind of 
exorcism ('fifteen minutes with a stout adversary knock the devil out of a lad 
- the devil of restlessness and pugnacity'), but also, he suggests, become a 
kind of beneficial contagion. 94 This might also have other, more immediately 
practical, advantages. When, in Besant's novel All Sorts and Conditions of 
Men (1882), Angela Messenger worries about security in her Utopian Palace 
of Delight (a model for the real People's Palace) her friend, the aristocrat-in- 
disguise Harry Le Breton, suggests engaging 'a professor of the noble art of 
self-defence'. 95 

In East London, Besant recalled the success of a church boxing club in 
Shoreditch, and urged readers who 'think that this is not the ideal amusement 
for a clergyman' to think again (illus. 33). 96 In fact many churches and later 
synagogues ran gyms and supported fighters. 97 The close involvement of 
organizations such as the Boy Scout Movement, the Jewish Lads' Brigade and 
Boys' Town in amateur boxing forms the basis of many fictional (as well as true) 
boxing stories well into the twentieth century. 98 The 'boxer-and-the priest' 
movie did particularly well during the thirties. 99 

Needless to say, Hollywood notwithstanding, boxing did not always succeed 
in ridding the streets of the devil. In his book on the Kray twins, John Pearson 
describes their early, highly successful, boxing careers in the London East End 
of the 1950s. Their father, he writes, 'thought that boxing would be the making 
of the twins, give them the discipline they needed, take them off the streets and 
give them something other than mischief to occupy their minds'. As amateurs, 
the twins won every bout they fought, and at the age of sixteen, they turned 


A. S. Hartnet, 
'Men's Club in 
Connection with 
Holy Trinity 
Church, Shoreditch 
- A Boxing Match', 
The Graphic, 
19 October 1889. 


professional. But soon afterwards, Pearson notes, 'the street violence they were 
involved in mysteriously increased as well'. 100 

In the 'social problem' discourse of the late nineteenth century, reformers 
often talked about 'the way out' and here too boxing played a part. 101 In Arthur 
Morrison's 1896 novel of London's East End, A Child ofthejago, Father Sturt 
tries to 'wipe out the blackest spot in the Jago' by creating a lodging-house, a 
night-shelter, washhouses and a club where 'he gathered the men of the Jago 
indiscriminately, with sole condition of good behaviour on the premises'. 'And 
there they smoked, jumped, swung on horizontal bars, boxed, played at cards 
and bagatelle, free from interference save when interference became neces- 
sary.' 102 But despite the best efforts of Father Sturt, the violence of the streets is 
never channelled. A novel full of street battles, A Child ofthejago ends with a 
fight in which the protagonist, Dicky, is killed. With his dying breath, he says to 
Father Sturt that he's found another 'way out - better'. 103 


George Orwell, claiming Dickens as a fellow pacifist in 1939, argued that he 'has 
no interest in pugilism': 

Considering the age in which he was writing, it is astonishing how lit- 
tle physical brutality there is in Dickens's novels ... he sees the stupid- 
ity of violence, and also he belongs to a cautious urban class which does 
not deal in socks on the jaw, even in theory. 104 

Others have disagreed with this reading. John Carey, for example, notes that 
while Dickens 'saw himself as the great prophet of cosy, domestic virtue, pur- 
veyor of improving literature to the middle classes . . . violence and destruction 
were the most powerful stimulants to his imagination'. 105 This violence mani- 
fests itself in many ways; in murder, fire and cannibalism. 'Socks on the jaw' are 
also not uncommon. The shift in the cultural meanings of boxing in the Victor- 
ian era is nowhere better reflected than in a body of work which began in the 
1830s and ended in the 1870s. 

In an 1852 letter, Dickens wrote that 'Nobody can for a moment suppose 
that "sporting" amusements are the sports of the people . . . they are the 
amusements of a peculiar and limited class', and boxers (and their supporters) 
often figure in his novels as hangovers from that peculiar class and a fading 
Regency world. 106 But while upper-class members of the Fancy, such as Sir 
Mulberry Hawk in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), are villains as well as fools, 
working-class or shabby-genteel sporting types, such Sam Weller, Pickwick's 
cheerfully cynical and pugilistic manservant, are usually treated with affection. 
In Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-8), the joke on the nostalgic 
boxing fan is similar to that on the boxing prints in the i860 'Uncommercial 
Traveller' piece. When Mr. Roker recalls the glory days of the butcher-pugilist 


with whom Pickwick is to share a room in the debtors' jail, he gazes 'abstractedly 
out of the grated window before him, as if he were fondly recalling some peaceful 
scene of his early youth': 

It seems but yesterday that he whopped the coal-heaver down Fox- 
under-the-Hill by the wharf there. I think I can see him now, a-coming 
up the Strand between the two street-keepers, a little sobered by the 
bruising, with a patch o' winegar and brown paper over his right eye- 
lid, and that 'ere lovely bull-dog, as pinned the little boy arterwards, a- 
following at his heels. 107 

Another recurrent joke features the pugilistic pretensions of clerks as a form 
of ersatz gentility. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) Dick Swiveller (bearer of a 
'small limp' calling card and dandyish attire) attempts fisticuffs at the door of 
Daniel Quilp, where he 'hammer[ed] away with such good will and heartiness' 
that it takes Quilp a couple of minutes to dislodge him, and even then Swiveller 
'perform [ed] a kind of dance round him and require[ed] to know "whether he 
wanted any more?"'. 108 Swiveller is not the only one of Dickens's characters to 
enjoy a little sparring dance or shadow boxing (which Addison had described 
as giving a man 'all the pleasure of boxing, without the blows'). 109 Later in The 
Old Curiosity Shop, little Nell's gambling-addicted grandfather is tempted off 
the straight and narrow at a pub run by Jem Groves, a retired prize-fighter. 
Groves very much admires his own portrait upon the wall and is introduced 
'sparring scientifically at a counterfeit Jem Groves, who was sparring at society 
in general from a black frame over the chimney-piece'. 110 Real and (safely) coun- 
terfeit violence, here and elsewhere in Dickens's work, exist side by side. 
Unable to take on his master directly ('I should have spoilt his features ... if I 
could have afforded it', he later confesses), Newman Noggs, clerk to the odious 
Ralph Nickleby, shadow boxes outside his office door. 

He stood at a little distance from the door, with his face towards it; and 
with the sleeves of his coat turned back at the wrists, was occupied in 
bestowing the most vigorous, scientific, and straightforward blows 
upon the empty air. 

At first sight, this would have appeared merely a wise precaution 
in a man of sedentary habits, with the view of opening the chest and 
strengthening the muscles of the arms. But the intense eagerness and 
joy depicted in the face of Newman Noggs, which was suffused with 
perspiration; the surprising energy with which he directed a constant 
succession of blows towards a particular panel about five foot eight 
from the ground, and still worked away in the most untiring and per- 
severing manner; would have sufficiently explained to the most atten- 
tive observer, that his imagination was thrashing to within an inch of 
his life, his body's most active employer, Mr. Ralph Nickleby. 111 


Dickens enjoyed the language of boxing as much as he did boxers, and nowhere 
more than in Dombey and Son (1846-8); indeed he stole the name (but little else) 
of a real prize-fighter, 'The Game Chicken' (Henry - 'Hen' - Pearce) for one of 
its characters. After coming into his inheritance, Mr Toots, a Corinthian past his 
sell-by-date, devotes himself to learning 'those gentle arts which refine and 
humanize existence, his chief instructor in which was an interesting character 
called the Game Chicken, who was always heard of at the bar of the Black Bad- 
ger, wore a shaggy great-coat in the warmest weather, and knocked Mr. Toots 
about the head three times a week, for the small consideration often and six 
per visit'. We learn about the Game Chicken's past exploits, his glory against 
the Nobby Shropshire One, and his defeat ('he was severely fibbed . . . heavily 
grassed') by the Larkey Boy. When Mr Toots despairs of winning the love of 
Florence Dombey against the wishes of her father, the Chicken reassures him 
that 'it is within the resources of Science to double him up, with one blow in 
the waistcoat'. 112 

When, in Bleak House (1852-3), Mr Snagsby comments that 'when a time is 
named for tea, it's better to come up to it', his wife is appalled. 

'To come up to it!' Mrs Snasgby repeats with severity. 'Up to it! As if 

Mr Snagsby was a fighter!' 
'Not at all, my dear,' says Mr. Snagsby. 113 

Mrs Snagsby views the use of boxing jargon as a sign of vulgarity, which must 
be avoided at all costs. Dickens, though, had no such qualms. A boxing pun 
may even be intended in the title of the opening chapter of Bleak House, 'In 
Chancery'. The oed gives as the slang meaning of the term, 'the position of the 
head when held under the opponent's left arm to be pommelled severely, the vic- 
tim meanwhile being unable to retaliate effectively.' 114 The meaning derives, 
the Dictionary adds, 'from the tenacity and absolute control with which the 
Court of Chancery holds anything'. This legal metaphor was frequently used in 
boxing slang, and, with the new meaning attached, occasionally reapplied to 
law. In August 1841, Punch enjoyed a typical joke on legal pugilism': 

The Chancery bar has been lately occupied with a question relating to 
a patent for pins' heads . . . The lawyers are the best boxers, after all. 
Only let them get a head in chancery, even a pin's, and see how they 
make the proprietor bleed. 115 

Dickens used the phrase himself in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) when the 
Revd Crisparkle affectionately takes on his mother and 'wound up by getting 
the old lady's head into Chancery, a technical term used in scientific circles, with 
a lightness of touch that hardly stirred the lightest lavender or cherry riband in 
it'. 116 In Bleak House, he may have wanted the phrase's additional meaning to 
reinforce the novel's emphasis on deadlock of various kinds. 


Elsewhere, what Dickens terms 'fistic phraseology' proves remarkably ver- 
satile, and his relish in its use is palpable. Some metaphors have only fleeting 
comic potential, often to characterize a marriage: in the above example, the joke 
rests in the fact that Mrs rather than Mr Snagsby is clearly the pugilist in the 
family; in the opening chapter of Nicholas Nickleby, on the other hand, Mr. God- 
frey Nickleby and his wife are described as 'two principles in a sparring match, 
who, when fortune is low and backers scarce, will chivalrously set to, for the 
mere pleasure of the buffeting.' 117 When Wemmick, in Great Expectations (1861), 
tries to put an arm around Miss Skiffins, she stops it with her green-gloved 
hands and 'the neatness of a placid boxer'. 118 

By putting pugilistic slang in the mouths of unlikely speakers in unlikely 
contexts, Dickens encourages his readers to think about the values such idioms 
conventionally entail. When the tender-hearted and literal-minded Mr Pick- 
wick says 'Take that, Sir' to the wretched Job Trotter, Dickens intervenes with 
'Take what?' 

In the ordinary acceptation of such language, it should have been a 
blow. As the world runs, it ought to have been a sound, hearty cuff; for 
Mr. Pickwick had been duped, deceived, and wronged by the destitute 
outcast who was now wholly in his power. Must we tell the truth? It 
was something from Mr. Pickwick's waistcoat, which chinked as it was 
given into Job's hand . . . 119 

Pickwick just does not do metaphors. However, it is not only in 'the Pickwick- 
ian sense' that words can be redefined. 120 In David Copperfield (1850), Mr Mi- 
cawber repeatedly 'cull[s] a figure of speech from the vocabulary of our coarser 
national sports'. On several occasions Micawber describes himself as 'floored' 
by circumstances and at one point he tells David, 'I can show fight no more'. 
But the point about Mr Micawber is that he never gives up; however often he 
finds himself on the floor, he always does fight on. And the last time he tells 
David he is 'floored', it is by the friendliness of Mr Dick. 121 

Other metaphors are more fully developed. In Chapter Two of Hard Times 
(1854), the 'government officer' who accompanies Mr Gradgrind on his school 
inspection is given 'in his way (and in most other people's too)', the supplement- 
ary identity of 'professed pugilist; always in training'. This allows for consider- 
able elaboration. Gradgrind came prepared 

always with a system to force down the general throat like a bolus, 
always to be heard of at the bar of his little Public-office, ready to fight 
all England. To continue in fistic phraseology, he had a genius for 
coming up to the scratch, wherever and whatever it was, and proving 
himself an ugly customer. He would go in and damage any subject 
whatever with his right, follow up with his left, stop, exchange, counter, 
bore his opponent (he always fought All England) to the ropes, and fall 

upon him neatly. He was certain to knock the wind out of common- 
sense, and render that unlucky adversary deaf to the call of time. 122 

The pugilistic energies of the Regency have been diverted by utilitarian Eng- 
land, Dickens seems to be suggesting, and that is perhaps not wholly a good 
thing: in the classroom, the pugilist-turned-bureaucrat (once hero of 'the Fancy') 
is reduced to fighting 'fancy' in the form of flowered carpets, and pictures of 
horses on the walls. 

While references to boxers and boxing slang remain incidental in Dickens's 
novels, fights in which boxing skills are employed occur remarkably frequently. 
Such fights, in particular those with a strong moral impetus behind them, were, 
of course, popular with readers. When Nicholas Nickleby asks Mr Crummies 
why he stages combats between mismatched opponents, Crummies replies, 'it's 
the essence of the combat that there should be a foot or two between them. How 
are you to get up the sympathies of the audience in a legitimate manner, if there 
isn't a little man contending against a big one'. 123 Such contests also serve a 
structural purpose, often marking turning points in the novels; in defending 
the honour of another (a sister or a mother or a small boy) the hero embarks on 
a new stage in his adventure. For example, after Noah Claypole insults his 
mother, Oliver Twist, 'crimson with fury', knocks him down with a blow that 
'contains his whole force'; beaten in turn, he decides to run away from the work- 
house -to London and into the clutches of Fagin (illus. 34). 124 Nicholas Nickleby 
experiences several such turning points, the most important occurring after his 
defeat of the cruel schoolmaster, Squeers. This fight is presented as the key 
incident of what can only be described as a kind of slave narrative. On Nickleby's 
arrival at the school, Squeers tells his wife that he now feels like 'a slave-driver 
in the West Indies [who] is allowed a man under him to see that his blacks don't 
run away, or get up a rebellion'; Nickleby is 'to do the same with our blacks'. On 
this analogy, the abject child, Smike, who runs away only to be recaptured, takes 
on the role of the beaten slave. But while in the classic American slave-narra- 
tives, he would fight either his master or overseer, here the overseer (Nickleby) 
intervenes on the slave's behalf and then the two run away together. 125 

Many of Dickens's fights combine a defence of vulnerable virtue with an 
awareness of class status and conflict, in a manner that recalls Adam Bede's bat- 
tle. In Dickens, however, the fight is not usually between a decadent aristocrat 
and a humble peasant, but between various members of the middle class. John 
Carey argues that whenever 'virtuous muscles' are involved, Dickens's writing 
'deteriorates'. 'Hopelessly dignified, the good characters brandish their sticks 
or fists, and the villains tumble. Dickens beams complacently. It is dutiful, 
perfunctory business.' 126 Although Carey's assessment rings true for some of 
the instances given above, there are other cases in which virtue and violence 
have a less easy relationship, and where the writing is far from perfunctory. 
Often considered as alternative versions of Dickens's own autobiography, David 


George Cruikshank, 

'Oliver plucks up 

spirit', illustration 

for Oliver Twist 


Copperfield and Great Expectations present their fisticuffs rather more anxiously 
and interestingly. 

Aware of himself from an early age as a 'little gent', David Copperfield strug- 
gles to establish this fact in the world. 127 Chapter Eighteen presents some of the 
events that, in retrospect, he believes 'mark' the course of coming of age: these 
are falling in love, twice, and fighting the local butcher, twice. 

'The terror of the youth of Canterbury', the butcher is reputed to have 
'unnatural strength' because of 'the beef suet with which he anoints his hair'. He 
taunts David and punches some younger boys about the head, and so David 
decided to fight him. David loses the fight and goes home to tell Agnes (the girl 
he does not yet know he loves) all about it. Her response is perfect: 'she thinks 
I couldn't have done otherwise than fight the butcher, while she shrinks and 
trembles at my having fought him'. Following beef-steaks to the eyes, some bear's 

grease to the hair, another thwarted love, and 'new provocation', David fights 
the butcher again and this time wins, knocking his adversary's tooth out. Al- 
though David says of the first contest, 'I hardly know which is myself and which 
the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about the trod- 
den grass', it is precisely to establish who he is, and particularly to make it clear 
to which class he belongs, that he fights. 128 

At the end of the chapter, the young David believes he is now prepared for 
life as a Regency gentleman manque; indeed next time he sees the butcher he 
contemplates the gentlemanly act of throwing him 'five shillings to drink'. But 
David has not yet, his older self admits, fallen in love 'in earnest', nor has he yet 
fought in earnest. When, a few chapters later he takes sparring lessons with 
James Steerforth, he feels himself 'the greenest and most inexperienced of mor- 
tals'. (Mildly embarrassed about his lack of boxing skill in front of Steerforth, 
he could, however, 'never bear' to show it in front of a man he feels is his infe- 
rior, Steerforth's servant, Littimer.) 129 

The real fight in David's life is against Uriah Heep, a man whose social am- 
bition is unsettlingly similar to his own (Heep calls David an 'upstart'; David 
calls Heep an over-reacher). Heep is described as creepy and fawning - a 'crawl- 
ing impersonation of meanness'. He gives David 'damp fishy' handshakes, but 
he is not harmless. His hand may be damp but it is also revengeful, a 'cruel-look- 
ing hand'. It takes David a long time to realize this, and even longer to act on his 
feelings of disgust. When he first sees Heep admiring Agnes, he wishes he had 
leave to knock him down'; 30 pages later, he recalls another leer' and wonders 
'that I did not collar him'; it takes another five pages before, 'enraged as I never 
was before and never have been since', he strikes the cheek that is 'invitingly' 
before him. 1 struck it with my open hand with that force that my fingers tingled 
as if I had burnt them'. By assuming a gentlemanly persona, David could break 
the butcher's tooth, but here there is not enough class distance for fists to be 
clenched. Fortunately for David, Mr. Micawber, who defines equality as being 
able to look my fellow man in the face, and punch his face if he offended me', 
has fewer class anxieties. He steps in and breaks Heep's wrist with a ruler wielded 
as a sword. David says he has never seen 'anything more ridiculous', but it is 
clear that he could not have done as much. 130 

David's uneasy sense of his own hands might be compared to his reading of 
the other pairs he encounters in the novel. Some are easily understood: Trad- 
dies, a clerk, has 'soft' hands; Ham Pegotty, a fisherman, has 'manly' hands. 
Others are more confusing. Heep's hands are both 'damp' and 'cruel'. Steerforth, 
the Byronic 'Oxford man', conceals his hands with gloves when he spars; he 
'knew everything' about sports, says David, but this is a misreading. What he 
sees as Steerforth's harmless sporting 'skirmish with Miss Dartle', for example, 
is the gloved aftermarth of an unsporting, ungloved, attack, for at the end of 
the novel we learn that it is Steerforth who has scarred her. 131 

An understanding of the social and moral weight carried by different kinds 
of hands features even more centrally in Great Expectations. When Pip first 


visits Satis House, he is overwhelmed by Estella's contempt for him; it is, he 
says, 'so strong, that it became infectious and I caught it'. 'I had never thought 
of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very 
indifferent pair.' Nevertheless, Estella instructs him to use his 'coarse hands' to 
play cards with her (she wins every game), and then feeds him outside on the 
courtyard stones. Pip's reaction to this is so powerful as to be inexpressible ver- 
bally - 'humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry, sorry -I cannot hit upon the 
right name for the smart' - the only 'counteraction' he finds to 'the smart with- 
out a name' is to twist his hair, kick the wall and cry. 132 

A second visit to Satis House follows much the same pattern - cards fol- 
lowed by food in the yard 'in the former dog-like manner'. This time, however, 
Pip's wandering in the grounds leads not to self-flagellation, but the flagellation 
of the Pale Young Gentleman (Herbert Pocket). He has 'hit upon' something 
more than the right name. It is Pocket who initiates the bout by inviting Pip to 
'come and fight'. As a young Regency gentleman, Pocket considers fighting a 
jolly game whose pleasure derives primarily from the following of laws', 'regu- 
lar rules' and numerous 'preliminaries'. The first requirement is 'a reason for 
fighting' and so he pulls Pip's hair and charges his head into his stomach; next, 
proper ground must be found, along with 'a bottle of water and a sponge dipped 
in vinegar'; then one must 'denude for battle'. Pip finds this behaviour 'at once 
light-hearted, business-like, and blood-thirsty'. But of course Pip does not un- 
derstand the nature of the game, or indeed that it is a game. He is 'morally and 
physically' offended by the attack on his hair and stomach ('particularly dis- 
agreeable after bread and meat') and just wants to hit his attacker and be done 
with it. Fighting, for him, in other words, should be a natural response to hurt, 
but instead he has to wait until the preparations are complete. When his first 
blow sends Pocket to the ground, he thinks that is the end of it, but Pocket keeps 
coming back for more - Pip floors him with every punch - stopping only for 
the pleasure of 'sponging himself or drinking out of the water-bottle, with the 
greatest satisfaction in seconding himself according to the form'. Finally 
Pocket throws his sponge in, and then has to explain to Pip that that means he 
has won. 133 

At first glance, the fight seems a perfect 'counteraction' to Estella's humili- 
ating behaviour. The gentleman's spurious 'reason' - a butt to the stomach - 
has unwittingly hit Pip where it hurts, for his stomach is full of Estella's bread 
and meat. Now Pip no longer needs to hurt himself (by kicking at walls and 
twisting his hair), but can hurt someone else, someone who, like Estella, wants 
to play silly games with his hands. Pip even admits that 'the more I hit him, the 
harder I hit him'. But ultimately Pip finds only 'gloomy satisfaction' in his vic- 
tory. Failing to understand that the fight was a game (the only game in which a 
blacksmith's apprentice could strike a gentleman), he is consumed by guilt 
and fear - 'I felt that the pale young gentleman's blood was on my head, and that 
the law would avenge it'. (That this is an extreme misinterpretation of events 
is confirmed later in the book when the two meet again, and Pocket asks Pip to 


forgive him 'for having knocked you about so.') Nor is his nameless smart (might 
'nausea' be the word?) any better, despite the fact that he soon encounters Estella 
with 'a bright flush upon her face'. Aroused by what she sees as his instinctive 
vitality, she invites him to kiss her and he does. 'But I felt that the kiss was given 
to the coarse common boy as a piece of money might have been, and that it 
was worth nothing.' We might compare her response to that of the shrinking 
and trembling Agnes in David Copperfield. m 

For all his considerable technical knowledge, Pocket is a poor physical spec- 
imen: 'pale', with 'red eyelids', 'pimples on his face and a breaking out in his 
mouth'. He is tall, but 'his elbows, knees, wrists, and heels' are the most devel- 
oped parts. Pocket is also, Pip observes, 'inky', and 'has been at his books', al- 
though we do not learn if it is those that taught him about boxing. Pip knows 
nothing about the science of boxing, but fights with the 'coarse hands' that, at 
this point in the story, he feels are his only inheritance. His victory over a gen- 
tleman, and Estella's reaction, merely confirm that coarseness (while David's 
victory over a butcher briefly gave him gentlemanly airs). Like Joe, Pip is a black- 
smith and blacksmiths, along with butchers, were famous as fighters. Joe strikes 
his horseshoes 'complete, in a single blow'; Pip has struck Pocket in the same 
way. Soon after, Mr Jaggers announces Pip's great expectations, and offers Joe 
financial compensation. Joe's reaction is remarkably like Pip's had been earlier: 
first, masochistic (he 'scooped his eyes with his disengaged wrist, as if he were 
bent on gouging himself) and then, pugilistic. Jaggers 's patronizing words are 
finally stopped 'by Joe's suddenly working round him with every demonstra- 
tion of pugilistic purpose'. The lawyer soon departs. It is only later (when he 
can 'see again' in writing his story) that Pip realizes that a 'muscular blacksmith's 
arm' is also the arm most likely to have a gentle and loving touch. 135 

One of the ideas that Dickens explored in Great Expectations was what it 
meant to be a gentleman. For much of the novel, Pip believes it is a matter of 
playing games, and Pocket soon proves a genial teacher of all manner of rules. 
Although David Copperfield had been happy to be treated like a plaything' by 
Steerforth, Pip will not assume that role for long. 136 Instead he learns the rules 
that govern the gentlemanly use of cutlery, domestic life, being an employer 
and financial management. It is only later, when he realizes the source of his 
wealth, that he comes to appreciate Mr. Pocket Senior's comment that 'no man 
who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was ... a true gentleman in man- 
ner'. In other words, Herbert Pocket is a gentleman not because he knows the 
many and complex rules of boxing, but because, when he plays that game (and 
when he does not), 'he bears all blows and buffets'. 137 

If Dickens's first novels explored the comic remnants of the Regency world, 
his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished at his death in 1870), presents 
one of the most appealing literary portraits of a Muscular Christian. 138 Minor 
Canon the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle is a man who is not ashamed to follow 
Hughes's advice and fight with 'the weapons which God has given us all'. 
Crisparkle is another of Dickens's shadow boxers, but in his case it is not a 


matter of imaginative thrashing. Rather he merely assist[s] his circulation by 
boxing at a looking glass with great science and prowess . . . while his radi- 
ant features teemed with innocence, and soft-hearted benevolence beamed from 
his boxing gloves'. As a prelude to breakfast he takes his mother's face between 
his boxing gloves and kisses it; 'Having done so with tenderness, the Reverend 
Septimus turned to again, countering with his left, and putting in his right, in 
a tremendous manner.' 139 

Later in the novel, Crisparkle uses his boxing knowledge to make an ex- 
tended comparison of gentle pugilists and pugnacious philanthropists. When 
he arrives at the office of the Haven of Philanthropy, he finds it populated by 
'Professors . . . ready for a turn-up with any Novice who might be on hand'. 

Preparations were in progress for a moral little Mill somewhere on the 
rural circuit, and other Professors were backing this or that Heavy- 
weight as good for such or such speech-making hits, so very much after 
the manner of the sporting publicans, that the intended Resolutions 
might have been Rounds. 

Although both pugilists and philanthropists have 'a propensity to "pitch into" 
[their] fellow-creatures', differences between the two 'professions' soon emerge. 
While the philanthropists cannot claim to be in good physical condition (they 
present a 'superabundance of what is known to Pugilistic Experts as Suet Pud- 
ding'), they easily top the prize-fighters in aggression, bad language, bad tem- 
per and foul play. Although much involved in charitable causes himself, Dickens 
objected strongly to what he called 'the cant of philanthropy' and its profession- 
alization. 140 'The Professors of the Noble Art,' Crisparkle concludes, are 'much 
nobler than the Professors of Philanthropy.' 141 


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, English nostalgia for the golden 
age of Regency prize-fighting returned with fervour. There are various possi- 
ble explanations for this. As the Queensberry rules took hold, it became clear 
that the new sport of gloved boxing was entirely different from the old bare- 
knuckle prize-fighting. That sense of loss was perhaps intensified by that fact 
that the golden age of pugilism had also been the time when British sporting 
and military superiority was clear. In 1884 Francis Galton observed the dis- 
turbing fact that the 'rising generation' simply couldn't hit straight. Describ- 
ing a machine for measuring the swiftness and force of a person's blow, Galton 
noted, 'it was a matter of surprise to me, who was born in the days of pugilism, 
to find that the art of delivering a clean hit, straight from the shoulder, as re- 
quired by this instrument, is nearly lost to the rising generation. Notwith- 
standing the simplicity of the test, a large proportion of persons bungled 
absurdly over it.' 143 


By the 1890s boxing was not simply a modern sport, but increasingly an Amer- 
ican one. The last British heavyweight champion (until Lennox Lewis in 2002) was 
Robert Fitzsimmons, who won his title from 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett in 1897, and 
lost it two years later to Jim Jeffries. 144 The relinquishing of the heavyweight box- 
ing crown was seen by some as symptomatic of the way in which America was 
forging ahead (economically and militarily) of a colonially overstretched Britain. 

Angus Wilson described 'the naughty nineties' as a period in which the 'old 
unregenerate manliness of the Regency' resurfaced. His father is proposed as a 
representative figure: 'a middle class rentier', to whom 'being a man' meant 'pay- 
ing a quid or two to a Covent Garden porter to fight him barefisted when he 
rolled home to the Tavistock Hotel after a night's card playing.' 

This was the old manliness that had united the ungodly upper class 
and the ungodly poor which had hidden its face from the blinding light 
of Queen Victoria's overwhelmingly pure home life; nothing to do with 
the manly thrashing which Tom Brown would administer to bullies 
after hearing the Doctor preach a heartening, noble and manly sermon 
in Rugby Chapel. 145 

This 'old manliness' reasserted itself against the watered-down Christian kind 
in a variety of different quarters. In his 1894 autobiography, novelist David 
Christie Murray confidently asserted that 'few greater blunders have been made 
by those who legislate for our well-being than by those moral people who abol- 
ished the Prize-Ring'. Many, he admits, will think him an 'irredeemable barbar- 
ian' for saying so, but he is keen to observe that a 'marked deterioration has 
been noticeable in the character of our people since the sport of the ring ceased 
to be a source of popular amusement'. Lost national pride is once again closely 
aligned with lost masculine 'virtue'. Looking back to his youth, Murray recalled 
the exploits of the Tipton Slasher (who 'trained my youthful hands to guard my 
youthful head') and the man who took his crown, Tom Sayers. Murray's empha- 
sis is largely on the inevitability of champions (and men in general) succeeding 
each other, and the chapter, and indeed, the memoir, ends with Sayers 's reflec- 
tion that, 'It is my turn to-day and somebody else's tomorrow.' 146 

Among the many novels of the 1890s to evoke romantically the days of the 
great bare-knuckle champions is Arthur Conan Doyle's Rodney Stone (1896). 147 
Like many of Doyle's historical novels, it is narrated by an old man looking back 
to his youth. Stone's Corinthian coming of age is interwoven with a Dickensian 
mystery story and a detailed account of the development of the sport, largely 
culled from Boxiana. In terms that recall Hazlitt's eulogy to male camaraderie in 
'The Fight', Stone evokes the 'solid and virile' values of the past: 

The ale-drinking, the rude good-fellowship, the heartiness, the laughter 
at discomforts, the craving to see the fight - all these may be set down as 
vulgar and trivial by those to whom they are distasteful; but to me, listen- 



Sidney Paget, 

illustration for 

Arthur Conan 

Doyle, Rodney Stone 


ing to the far-off and uncertain echoes of our distant past, they seem to 
have been the very bones upon which much that is most solid and virile 
in this ancient race was molded. 148 

Asked by his publisher George Newnes, 'Why that subject, of all subjects on 
earth?', Doyle replied, 'Better that our sports should be a little too rough than 
that we should run the risk of effeminacy' (illus. 35). 149 

Conan Doyle was reputed to have been a fine boxer himself, and an interest 
in the sport seeps into works in several different genres. 150 The French anti-hero 


of his 1903 Napoleonic romp, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, for example, has 
several comically inept bouts against a 'solid and virile' Englishman. 151 It is from 
such Englishmen that Sherlock Holmes is descended. Although Holmes assures 
Watson that he is in large part 'a brain' and the rest of him 'mere appendix,' 
that appendix often proves quite useful. In The Sign of Four (1889), he encounters 
an ex-champion prize-fighter now working as a bodyguard. 152 Refused entrance, 
Holmes reminds the man of their acquaintance 'at Alison's rooms on the night 
of your benefit four years back'. 

'Not Mr Sherlock Holmes!' roared the prize-fighter. 'God's truth! How 
could I have mistook you? If instead o' standin' there so quiet you had 
just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I'd 
ha' known you without question. Ah, you're the one that has wasted your 
gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.' 153 

Holmes's jokey aside to Watson - 'if all else fails me, I have still one of the scientific 
professions open to me' - relies on the fact that both pugilism and detection were 
deemed 'scientific'. Yet this is no mere coincidence of terminology. Both prize- 
fighting and crime-solving, as depicted by Doyle, require the careful application of 
method and technique to an often elusive opponent. Furthermore both are solitary 
pursuits, shunning the support of team-members or a uniformed force. At the end 
of Tom Brown's Schooldays 'young master' tells his pupils that cricket 'ought to be 
such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn't play that 
he may win but that his side may.' Tom agrees with this view, 'now one comes to 
think of it', but Holmes is a different case. 154 In the Memoirs, he confides in Watson 
about his college days. 'I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather 
fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, 
so that I never mixed with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing I had few 
athletic traits'. 155 Boxing, as Holmes had known it, was the sport of loners and 
intellectuals, an amateur pursuit that depended on the cultivation of 'little methods 
of thought' as well as chivalric intentions . That, however, was no longer strictly the 
case by the 1890s. Boxing was becoming a business and a profession. 


Like Any Other Profession' 

From the 1880s to the 1920s boxing was in a state of flux. One set of codes and 
regulations replaced another, British dominance collapsed in the face of new 
American prowess, and new audiences emerged through the development of 
popular mass media from magazines to film. By the mid-i920s, boxing had be- 
come a mainstream spectator sport in the United States, and its associations 
with an illegal subculture loosened, for a while at least. 

These changes are epitomized in the career of the 'Boston strong boy', John 
L. Sullivan. In 1881, Sullivan was a bare-knuckle pugilist, scrapping on a barge 
on the Hudson River in order to evade the attention of police; less than a decade 
later he was boxing in gloves according to the Queensberry rules in an indoor 
arena, lit by electricity, in front of a crowd that included middle-class business- 
men and their wives. 

Described by his biographer as 'the first significant mass cultural hero in 
American life', Sullivan was one of the first sportsmen to become a celebrity 
through the services of the national popular press in general, and one maga- 
zine in particular. 1 Founded in 1846, the Police Gazette reached its heyday in the 
1880s and '90s under the editorship of Richard Kyle Fox. Fox introduced a po- 
tent mix of celebrity gossip, racial stereotyping, and sport, all lavishly illustrated 
with woodcuts. The Police Gazette's interest in sport, as Tom Wolfe points out, 
had 'nothing to do with the High Victorian ideal of "athletics", and everything 
to do with gambling'. 2 Readers, it seemed, would bet on absolutely anything, 
from cock-fighting, badger-baiting, rat-killing and butchery to wood-chopping, 
hairdressing, speedy water-drinking, weightlifting by the teeth, sleep depriva- 
tion, and fasting. The magazine awarded championship belts in all these 'events' 
and so challenges were regularly issued. But the Police Gazette was particu- 
larly interested in boxing. Gene Smith argues that, 'almost alone', Fox's mag- 
azine 'made boxing big business and so popular that [in 1882] the result of a 
Sullivan-Ryan fight was of immensely more interest to citizens than the result 
of a Garfield-Hancock Presidential election'. 3 

Sullivan had publicly humiliated Fox in 1881 by refusing to visit his table in 
a Boston saloon. 'If he wants to see John L. Sullivan,' the prize-fighter blustered, 


The 45th round of 
Sullivan vs. Kilrain, 
as illustrated in the 
Police Gazette (1889). 


'he can do the walking.' From then on, the Police Gazette devoted itself to slander- 
ing Sullivan, and Fox set about finding a fighter who could defeat him. English, 
Irish, American and New Zealand contenders were all featured in the magazine 
as they prepared to take him on. None succeeded. Finally, in 1889, Sullivan faced 
Jake Kilrain, whom Fox had dubbed champion of the world (although in fact he 
had only drawn with the British champion, Jem Smith). 4 Each side posted a 
$10,000 bet, winner to take all. Unfortunately for Fox, after 75 bloody rounds 
under the Mississippi sun, Sullivan also beat Kilrain (illus. 36). Fox finally gave 
up the feud and awarded him the Police Gazette championship belt. 

Following his defeat of Kilrain, Sullivan did not simply become a celebrity; 
like Heenan and Sayers before him, he became a screen onto which a wide 
variety of feelings and attitudes could be projected. In the late nineteenth century, 
many of those feelings concerned doctrines of materialism, whether economic, 
aesthetic, physical, or national. The Cuban essayist, poet, and revolutionary 
leader, Jose Marti, for example, saw the 1882 Ryan-Sullivan fight as proof of the 
uncivilized, and outmoded, nature of North American life. 5 Robert Frost, on 
the contrary, used Sullivan's name to demonstrate 'the level of intelligence' in 
New Hampshire. 'The matter with the Mid-Victorians,' a farmer states in his 
poem, 'New Hampshire', 'Seems to have been a man named John L. Darwin.' 6 
The farmer's conflation of the brute materialism of prize-fighting and that of 
Darwinism, Frost suggests, demonstrated high intelligence. 

To young newspaperman Theodore Dreiser, 'raw, red-faced, big-fisted, 
broad-shouldered, drunken' Sullivan, 'with gaudy waistcoat and tie, and rings 
and pins set with enormous diamonds and rubies', embodied another kind of 
materialism, that of Gilded Age conspicuous consumption. Sullivan, Dreiser 
claimed, was 'the apotheosis of the humourously gross and vigorous and mate- 
rial ... a sort of prize-fighting J. P. Morgan ... I adored him'. 7 Dreiser drew on 
their 1893 meeting in his later fiction; most notably in a crucial scene in Sister 
Carrie (1900). 8 Having just helped Carrie take a step up in her inexorable rise, 
George Hurstwood goes to the 'gorgeous saloon' which he manages, and there 
encounters his rival for her affections, Charles Drouet. 

It was at five in the afternoon and the place was crowded with mer- 
chants, actors, managers, politicians - a goodly company of rotund, 
rosy figures, silk-hatted, starchy-bosomed, be-ringed and be-scarf- 
pinned to the queen's taste. John L. Sullivan, the pugilist, was at one 
end of the glittering bar, surrounded by a company of loudly dressed 
sports who were holding a most animated conversation. Drouet came 
across the floor with a festive stride, a new pair of tan shoes squeaking 
audibly his progress. 

Sullivan's presence foreshadows the conflict between the two men for the prize 
of Carrie. It also suggests the terms in which the fight will be played out. If Sul- 
livan is 'the apotheosis of the humourously gross and vigorous and material', 
Drouet, a travelling salesman in 'new tan shoes' is following, squeakily, in his 
footsteps. Saloon-manager Hurstwood has a solidity- 'composed in part of his 
fine clothes, his clean linen, his jewels, and, above all, his own sense of his 
importance' - which, in Carrie's eyes raises him above Drouet. By the end of the 
novel, however, he too will have met his match. The apotheosis of vigorous 
materialism, of course, turns out to be Carrie herself. 9 

Vachel Lindsay, meanwhile, considered Sullivan's materialism primarily in 
literary terms. His poem about the defeat of Kilrain describes the effect 'the 
Strong Boy of Boston' had on his nine-year-old self. Sullivan's example, Lindsay 
claimed, injected a much-needed infusion of red-blooded masculinity into his 
feminized late-Victorian life. Until hearing the 'battle trumpet sound' of John L., 
he had dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and, when not under the sway of 'the 
cult of Tennyson's Elaine', had taken Louisa May Alcott as his 'gentle guide'. 10 
After Sullivan's victory, it seems, being a Bostonian meant something differ- 
ent. 11 As a poem, 'The Strong Boy' is a good example of what Lindsay described 
as his deployment of 'the Higher Vaudeville imagination'. Like his more famous 
'The Congo', it was meant to be chanted, and has a cheerful refrain: 

'London Bridge is falling down.' 

And . . . 

John L. Sullivan 

The strong boy 


Broke every single rib of Jake Kilrain. 12 

But only three years after his defeat of Kilrain, Sullivan's great bare-knuck- 
led strength had begun to seem old-fashioned; the future came in the form of 
James J. Corbett, 'Gentleman Jim', a bank clerk who taught sparring at San Fran- 
cisco's Olympic Club. Corbett defeated Sullivan under the Queensberry rules in 
1892, thus becoming the first gloved fighter to be recognized as heavyweight 
champion. The fight played out the classic antimonies of youth versus age, and 
science versus strength, but it also represented two different eras. Indeed some 
saw Sullivan's defeat as representing, once and for all, America's fall from grace 
(when hard-drinking men were hard-drinking men) into an age where even prize- 
fighters wore evening dress and sipped cocktails. Sullivan described Corbett as 
a 'damned dude'. 

'Pompadour Jim', or more commonly 'Gentleman Jim', Corbett took his 
celebrity status and good looks seriously - 'why a fighter can't be careful about 
his appearance I don't understand' - and, with the help of his manager, William 
A. Brady, skilfully capitalized on them. 13 Not much had changed financially for 
boxers since Mendoza's day. They made little money from fighting itself. Any 
boxer with a well-known name took to the stage. All this would change with the 
introduction of film in the late 1890s, but until then Corbett toured the coun- 
try, staging boxing exhibitions and appearing in a series of successful plays. 14 An 
example of his awareness of the tight control needed to maintain his celebrity 
can be found in his meeting with Mark Twain in 1894. When Twain jokingly 
challenged him to a contest, Corbett declined, 'so gravely', noted Twain, 'that 
one might easily have thought him in earnest'. Corbett, it seemed, was worried 
that Twain might knock him out 'by a purely accidental blow': 'then my repu- 
tation would be gone and you would have a double one. You have got fame 
enough already and you ought not to want to take mine away from me.' 15 

Fox's Police Gazette campaigned to make boxing legal as well as popular, but 
the sport continued to move in and out of legality until the 1920s, with differ- 
ent restrictions operating in different states at different times. Following their 
fight in Mississippi, for example, Sullivan and Kilrain were arrested and had to 
pay substantial fines to avoid imprisonment, while in 1895 legal obstructions 
meant that a planned fight between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons had to 
move around the country several times before it finally took place two years 
later in Carson City, Nevada. 16 The desire to suppress prize-fighting during this 
period was not, as now, based on concerns about the health of the boxers. 
Rather, arguments about the legalization of boxing centred on its associations 
with crime and political corruption. In 1910 Corbett wrote that he hardly ever 
had a fight without a bribe being offered. 'The only objection I have to the prize 
ring', declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1913, 'is the crookedness that has attended 
its commercial development.' 17 


In the 1880s New York became one of the main centres of prize-fighting, 
despite frequent police disruption and calls from the press to end events 'which 
attract the worst ruffians and criminals in the city'. 18 Pushed out of the city, 
boxing clubs simply moved to nearby Long Island and Coney Island (popu- 
larly known as 'Sodom-by-the-Sea') where they continued to flourish. In order 
to try and control this spiralling illegal activity, New York became, in 1896, the 
first state to legalize a version of boxing by statute. Sparring with five-ounce 
gloves for a maximum of twenty rounds in buildings owned by incorporated 
athletic associations was now allowed, but 'disorderly gatherings' and police 
intervention continued, and, with the support of Governor Roosevelt, the law 
was repealed in 1900. 

Outlawing professional boxing made little difference to the growth of its 
popularity, however, and in many places fights continued to be staged almost 
nightly. Those who were interested had no difficulty finding out where to go. 
One scam was to stage 'exhibitions' or, more commonly, to operate politically 
supported 'membership clubs'; anyone who paid a dollar could join the club 
and watch the fight. The status of athletic associations and saloon-based clubs 
shifted during the years that followed, until, in New York at least, boxing was 
finally legalized, and properly licensed, in 1920 (illus. 37). 19 

In his 1906 novel of the Chicago stockyards, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair 
described a club run by the Democratic Party's 'War-Whoop League', where 
cock fights, dog fights and boxing take place. 'The policemen in the district all 
belonged to the league, and instead of suppressing the fights, they sold tickets 
for them.' The clubhouse is a hotbed of 'agencies of corruption' including, 
among others, 'the prize-fighter and the professional slugger, the race-track 


Kid McCoy at the 
Broadway Athletic 
Club, 1900. 


"tout", the procurer, the white-slave agent, and the expert seducer of young 
girls', all of whom are, in turn, in 'blood brotherhood with the politician and the 
police'. 'More often than not', Sinclair wrote, 'they were one and the same person 
- the police captain would own the brothel he pretended to raid . . . On election 
day all those powers of vice and corruption were one power; they could tell 
within one per cent what the vote of their district would be, and they could 
change it at an hour's notice.' 20 

The boxing membership clubs were not merely magnets for criminals and 
corrupt politicians. As Jack London pointed out in his 1913 'alcoholic memoirs' 
of 'bouts' with John Barleycorn, the saloon was a place where men believed they 
could escape 'from the narrowness of women's influence into the wide free world 
of men'. 21 A steady stream of middle-class men, in pursuit of the strenuous life, 
passed though the doors of the boxing clubs, some more anxiously than oth- 
ers. In his Life and Confessions, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall admitted a com- 
pulsive interest in the 'raw side of human life', so much so that he 'never missed 
an opportunity to attend a prizefight if I could do so unknown and away from 
home'. 22 The artist Thomas Eakins was quite open about his interest in prize- 
fights, and, with his friend, sportswriter Clarence Cranmer, regularly attended 
the amphitheatre of the Philadelphia Arena, which was on the other side of 
Broad Street from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. 23 His three major 
paintings of 1898 and 1899 feature fighters who appeared there during this time, 
and two of these were exhibited in the Academy's annual exhibitions. The ille- 
gal world of boxing had crossed the road. (Was Sylvester Stallone alluding to 
this when he has Rocky train on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?) 

Eakins was uninterested in painting boxers exchanging blows. His paintings 
rather explore the moments within a fight when the action stops (Takingthe Count 
and Between Rounds) and the moment when it is all over (Salutat). The profes- 
sional activities surrounding the fight - involving the boxers' attendants, the ref- 
eree, the press, and the police - interested him as much as the boxers themselves. 
In the first two paintings, large banners advertising a circus hang from the 
balcony. Salutat also alludes to gladiatorial combat (carved into the original 
frame of the painting were the words dextra victrice conclamentes salutat, 'the right 
hand of the victor salutes those acclaiming him'). Eakins wanted to show that the 
artist could find heroism and beauty in male semi-nudity without having 
recourse to Rome; modern America, he believed, provided ample material. 24 Salu- 
tat features Billy Smith, a local professional featherweight, known as 'Turkey 
Point'. While his chiselled white body evokes classical sculpture, his tanned face, 
neck and hands remind us that he is a working-class American boy (illus. 38). 25 

The victorious boxer's body, and in particular his musculature, is high- 
lighted by bright electrical light, but the painting seems equally interested in 
celebrating his intimate involvement with the spectators (and indeed their 
intimate involvement with the artist, since all six men sitting along the railing 
are identifiable from Eakins's personal circle; his father is on the far right). 
Although a contemporary reviewer complained that these men are brought 'so 


Thomas Eakins, 
Salutat, 1898. 

far forward as to give the impression that both victor and audience might shake 
hands', this seems to be one of the painting's great strengths. 26 The triumphantly 
raised right hand of Billy Smith is reflected in the raised right hand (with hat) of 
Eakins's friend, Clarence Cranmer; patches of blue (in Smith's sash and Cran- 
mer's bow tie) also connect them. Without sportswriters such as Cranmer, 
Eakins may be suggesting, news of a boxer's victory would not travel far; more 
personally, without Cranmer 's encouragement and support, Eakins might never 
have attended prize-fights or have gained access to boxers as models. And with- 
out such venues as the Philadelphia Arena, men could not gather together to 
gaze admiringly at other men. (As Michael Hutt points out, 'Salutat reveals more 
of the male body than is strictly necessary'. 27 ) The barrier that divides specta- 
tors and participants is less important than the links which connect them. 



John Sloan's 
Philadelphia studio, 
December 1895. 
Sloan, second from 
the left, is watching 
a mock boxing 
match; George 
Luks is the boxer 
on the left. 

Several of Eakins's followers pursued his interest in boxing, finding in it a 
subject matter which would both challenge academic painting, and American- 
ize it in a properly 'manly' way. In the mid-i890s, Robert Henri, who had stud- 
ied in Philadelphia with a pupil of Eakins, held regular gatherings where 
up-and-coming artists such as John Sloan and George Luks sometimes staged 
mock boxing matches. Luks invented numerous pugilistic personae for himself 
(Lusty Luks, Socko Sam, Curtain Conway, Monk-the-Morgue and Chicago 
Whitey). When he later became famous, he enjoyed telling journalists that, as 
Chicago Whitey, he fought some 150 fights, or that, as Lusty Luks, he was the 
former holder of the light heavyweight crown (illus. 39). 28 

In 1900 Henri moved to New York where, along with Sloan and Luks, he 
became successful as a member of the 'Immortal Eight', later dubbed the 'Ash- 
can school'. At the New York School of Art, he instructed his students to attend 
football games and boxing matches, in short to 'be a man first, an artist later'. 29 
Nevertheless, art was the primary object of this manly activity. Henri believed 
that he could tell which students were 'fighters' and had 'guts' by looking at 
their work. Some ways of painting were, he maintained, more masculine than 
others and students were forbidden to use small brushes (which he considered 
effeminate) and urged to paint in 'the straightforward unfinicky manner of the 


male'. 30 The most prominent of Henri's students, and one who took this advice 
to heart, was George Bellows. Bellows frequently told journalists that his aim 
was to introduce 'manliness, frankness, love of the game' into his painting. 
'Things that Henri only paid lip service to,' Edward Lucie-Smith argues, 'Bellows 
put into practice'. 31 

Bellows 's studio was situated across the street from retired prize-fighter Tom 
Sharkey's saloon-cum-boxing club on Broadway, and, before he 'married and 
became semi-respectable' in 1910, he was a frequent visitor there. 32 The back- 
room at Tom Sharkey's, as depicted in Bellows 's paintings, Club Night (1907) and 
Stag at Sharkey's (1909), is a rather hellish place (illus. 40). While Eakins depicted 
boxing spectators as decent sober middle-class men - many of whom are worthy 
of their own portraits - Bellows saw a mass of Goya-like grotesques. Those figures 
who can be distinguished, not so much by their faces as by their waistcoats and 
shirts, represent a mix of social classes and, as Marianna Doezema points out, 'a 
stereotypical range of reactions, from horror to fascination.' 33 ('The best part of 
a prize fight', wrote Charles Belmont Davis in 1906, 'is not the sight of two human 
brutes pounding each other into insensibility on a resined floor, but rather the 
yelling, crazy mob with its innate love of carnage that the two brutes have turned 
into the principal actors.' 34 ) The claustrophobic atmosphere of Stag at Sharkey's 
is further intensified by the fact that the spectators encircle the boxers, and that 
they look up, rather than down, at the action. The viewer is situated among those 
spectators, virtually, but not quite, at ringside. The artist too may be included in 
the half-hidden portrait of a bald man whose eyes and raised eyebrows poke 
above the floor of the ring, 'as if he is here only to look. His head is inclined down- 
ward, perhaps toward a sketchbook, so he must glance sharply up to catch the 
action.' Bellows presents himself, Doezma argues, 'as a relatively detached 
observer, the professional artist in the act of gathering visual material'. 35 

Yet the painting is anything but detached. 'I didn't paint anatomy,' Bellows 
declared, 'I painted action'. 36 Some have read the immediacy and energy of this 
action, in which the limbs of nearly naked men are intertwined, as conflating a 
violent sexuality and a sexualized violence. 37 The club is so dark that little can 
be distinguished within it, except where a light from the left illuminates the 
white bodies of the boxers. The only colour present is the red of their faces (from 
exertion or blood?) which is reflected in the face of a bloodthirsty ringside spec- 
tator. Bellows is not interested in individual psychology or muscular precision. 
Instead he presents a thickly painted and almost abstract composition. 

Bellows's early critics praised the 'manliness' of his style as well as his sub- 
ject matter, but did not really explain what this meant. What was involved in 
translating manly subject matter, such as boxing, into style? Was it merely a 
matter of bold brush strokes and impasto? When James Huneker said that 
Bellows's 'muscular painting' hit the viewer 'between the eyes', he was suggest- 
ing that painting was itself a form of boxing. 38 Such claims recall Hazlitt's 
comments on Byron's masculine style some hundred years earlier, but a more 
relevant comparison might be with Hogarth's quarrel with academic painting. 



George Bellows, 

Stag at Sharkey's, 


Both Hogarth and Bellows co-opted low-life activities such as boxing to epito- 
mize 'the real' in their propaganda battles against the artificiality of established 
conventions. Hogarth set low against high, down-to-earth Englishness against 
continental neo-classicism; Bellows set low against middle, American virility 
against Victorian sentimentality and the 'genteel tradition', John L. Sullivan 
against Louisa May Alcott. 39 

Frank Norris's advocacy of literary realism made similar connections. In a 
1903 essay on the 'fakery' involved in most historical fiction, he proposed that 
novelists try harder to 'get at the life immediately around you'. Since 'we are all 
Anglo-Saxons enough to enjoy the sight of a fight', he argued, surely our litera- 
ture should strive to convey 'the essential vital, elemental, all-important true 
life within the spirit' evident at the best of these occasions; the novelist should 
strike to 'get at' 'Mr. Robert Fitzsimmons or Mr. James Jeffries'. The novelist's 
'heavy' responsibility, he concluded, was not to make money but to write with 
'sincerity'. 40 Realism was again proposed as the manly literary equivalent of 
pugilism, but this very move required romanticization. Norris did not consider 
the possibility that Fitzsimmons and Jeffries (both of Irish rather than Anglo- 
Saxon descent) might have been more interested in making money than in ex- 
pressing vitality, virility or sincerity. 



Early nineteenth-century artists and writers had considered boxers wholly from 
the outside, as sub-cultural heroes or villains who, although their clothes, lan- 
guage or behaviour might be imitated, remained apart. In the 1880s, however, 
some artists and writers began to suggest that the fighter's life and experience 
might, in certain ways, resemble that of everyone else; it might even usefully be 
considered a representative life. This shift in attitude changed the way that box- 
ers were represented in art. Increasingly boxers had more than satirical or 
metaphorical significance and the occasional walk-on part in a story. By the end 
of the nineteenth century, they began to feature in forms of representation, such 
as the novel and genre painting, that encouraged some degree of identification. 

Thomas Eakins's boxing paintings, I have suggested, brought together 
policemen, sportswriters, sketch artists and boxers as men engaged in compa- 
rable professional activities. George Bernard Shaw made a similar claim in 
Cashel Byron's Profession (1886), which he intended as the first serious boxing 
novel. Instead of 'retaliatory violence' and 'romantic fisticuffs', it would deal 
with the challenges and injustices of the modern world. It would be about work 
and about sex, 'a hymn to skill and science over incoherent strength' and 'a dar- 
ing anticipation of coming social developments'. 41 The book was a huge popu- 
lar success. Running to many editions, it was pirated for the stage in the United 
States, prompting Shaw in 1901 to write a dramatic version (in blank verse), 
The Admirable Bashville. 42 But the novel's popularity, Shaw later lamented, did 
not stem from the pertinent social and political debates it addressed, but from 
its depiction of Cashel's 'professional performances'. 43 'Here lay the whole 
schoolboy secret of the book's little vogue,' he complained. In 1902, P. G. Wode- 
house praised Cashel Byron as 'the best drawn pugilist in fiction', and laughed 
at Shaw's dismissal of the English novel's 'gospel of pugilism'. 'And why not?' 
declared Wodehouse. 'All fights are good reading, and if the hero invariably 
wins, well, what does it matter?' 44 

Shaw had become interested in boxing in the late 1870s when his friend, 
Pakenham Beatty, an aspiring poet and keen amateur fighter, introduced him 
to Ned Donnelly, a 'Professor of Boxing' who ran a gymnasium near the Hay- 
market Theatre. In February 1883 Shaw completed Cashel Byron 's Profession and 
a month later the two men entered for the Amateur Boxing Championship. (The 
first championship meeting of the Amateur Boxing Association had taken place 
in 1881.) Neither was chosen to compete. In a 1917 interview Shaw recalled this 
time, and in particular the 'brilliant boxer' Jack Burke. 'It was an exhibition spar 
of his that suggested the exploits of Cashel Byron.' 45 

After 1900 Shaw came to reject his boxing novel, and for twenty years 
largely stopped attending fights, primarily, he claimed, because the 'second- 
rate boxing' on offer 'reduced me to such a condition of deadly boredom that 
even disgust would have been a relief.' 46 In 1919, however, Shaw was persuaded 
to write an article for The Nation on Joe Beckett's European Heavyweight Cham- 

pionship fight against a man he considered a 'genius', Georges Carpentier 
(Arnold Bennett was The New Statesman's correspondent), and in the 1920s, he 
became great friends with another scholarly fighter, Gene Tunney. 47 Tunney's 
reading was often commented upon by the press: on the eve of his first fight 
with Jack Dempsey in 1926, he was caught with Samuel Butler's The Way of All 
Flesh. Michael Holroyd reads Tunney's career as 'a Shavian romance' while Shaw 
himself praised Tunney for winning 'by mental and moral superiority . . . You 
might almost say that he wins because he has the good sense to win.' 48 

The main argument of Cashel Byron's Profession (and it is a very argumen- 
tative novel) is that 'the pugilistic profession is like any other profession'. 'The 
intelligent prize-fighter is not a knight-errant: he is a disillusioned man of busi- 
ness trying to make money at a certain weight and at certain risks, not of bod- 
ily injury (for a bruise is soon cured), but of pecuniary loss.' 49 What profession, 
the novel asks, might be open to Cashel Byron, son of an actress and pupil at a 
minor public school which promotes 'bodily exercises'? The school had encour- 
aged Cashel to believe that the army was 'the only profession for a gentleman', 
but it is one that he cannot afford. He runs away as a sailor to Australia where 
he is taken in and trained by an ex-champion boxer (modelled on Ned Don- 
nelly) who sagely tells him 'when you rise to be a regular professional, you wont 
care to spar with nobody without youre well paid for it'. This is confirmed later 
in the book when, like a Victorian hero, Cashel is forced to fight to defend the 
honour of a wealthy lady. But after the fight is over, he tells her, without Victor- 
ian chivalry, 'It's no pleasure to me to fight chance men in the streets for noth- 
ing; I don't get my living that way.' When he marries her, he gives up pugilism. 
'He had gone through with it when it was his business; but he had no idea of 
doing it for pleasure.' 50 

Another man who turns to fighting purely to make some money is Robert 
Montgomery, the protagonist of Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Croxley Master' 
(1905). Montgomery is a medical student who cannot afford the £60 needed to 
complete his degree. He is employed by a doctor who refuses to advance his 
wages and no other source of money seems forthcoming. 'His brains were fairly 
good, but brains of that quality were a drug in the market. He only excelled in 
his strength; and where was he to find a customer for that?' Fortunately, an op- 
portunity arises for Montgomery to earn £60 if he beats the 'Croxley Master' 
('twenty rounds, two-ounce gloves, Queensberry rules, and a decision on points 
if you fight to the finish'). Montgomery had excelled in university boxing, but 
had had 'no particular ambition' to enter amateur championships. Fighting for 
money is a different matter. 'He had thought bitterly that morning that there 
was no market for his strength, but here was one where his muscle might earn 
more in an hour than his brains in a year.' Montgomery is realistic about his 
chances: 'he knew enough to appreciate the difference which exists in boxing, 
as in every sport, between the amateur and the professional'. One of the Crox- 
ley Master's 'iron blows was worth three of his, and . . . without the gloves he 
could not have stood for three rounds against him. All the amateur work that 

he had done was the merest tapping and flapping when compared to those 
frightful blows, from arms toughed by the shovel and the crowbar.' However, he 
is in good physical shape, and can rely on 'that higher nerve energy which counts 
for nothing upon a measuring tape'. Furthermore, the Queensberry rules favour 
the scientific amateur over the old-style artisan pugilist. When Montgomery 
wins the fight, the Master urges him to a rematch, 'old style and bare knuckes'. 
But he refuses this offer, and one to become a professional fighter, in order to re- 
turn to medical school. 51 

In 'The Croxley Master', Conan Doyle had come a long way from the Re- 
gency romance of Rodney Stone (published nine years earlier) to an almost Sha- 
vian position. 'It's not what a man would like to do that he must do in this world; 
it's what he can do,' declares Cashel Byron, 'and the only mortal thing I could do 
properly was fight.' Shaw reiterated this point in his own words nearly 40 years 
later: 'It was worth Carpentier's while to escape from the slavery of the coal pit 
and win £5,000 in 74 seconds with his fists. It would not have been worth his 
while if he had been Charles xn.' 52 

As work of last resort, Shaw further maintained, boxing had much in com- 
mon with prostitution. His 1893 play Mrs Warren's Profession was originally sub- 
titled 'A tragic variation on the theme of Cashel Byron's Profession' ', and he 
considered subtitling Major Barbara (1905) Andrew Undershaft's Profession'. 
Like Mrs Warren, arms dealer Andrew Undershaft and pugilist Cashel Byron 
'do things for money that they would not do if they had other assured means of 
livelihood'. 53 If the word 'prostitution' is to be applied to one of these jobs, Shaw 
wrote, it should be applied 'impartially' to all. As long as society is so organized 
that the destitute athlete and the destitute beauty are forced to choose 
between underpaid drudgery as industrial producers, and comparative self- 
respect, plenty, and popularity as prize-fighters and mercenary brides, licit or 
illicit, it is idle to affect virtuous indignation at their expense.' 54 Although prosti- 
tution, arms-dealing and prize-fighting were professions which 'society officially 
repudiates', each of them, he maintained, could serve 'as a metaphor for the 
way in which that larger society is really conducted'. The 'prostitute class of men' 
did not only consist of prize-fighters: lawyers, doctors, clergymen, politicians, 
journalists and dramatists 'daily [use] their highest faculties to belie their real 
sentiments'. 55 On this reading, boxing was not merely 'a profession like any 
other', but expressive of the very nature of modern working life, its injustices 
and brutalities (illus. 41). 

While Shaw and Conan Doyle maintained a clear distinction between the 
(degrading) professional and the (invigorating) amateur versions of boxing, 
their near contemporary, the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, drew 
attention to a common element. Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) 
includes a chapter entitled 'Modern Survivals of Prowess', which considers the 
value of sport to the industrial and leisure classes. On the one hand, 'the leisure- 
class canon demands strict and comprehensive futility', which sport provides; 
on the other, the 'manly virtues' cultivated by sport 'do in fact further what may 


Jack Yeats, Not Pretty 
hut Useful, 1897-9. 

broadly be called workmanship'. Sport, in short, cultivates 'two barbarian traits, 
ferocity and astuteness', both of which 'are highly serviceable for individual 
expediency in a life looking to invidious success . . . Both are fostered by the 
pecuniary culture. But both alike are of no use for the purposes of the collective 
life.' 56 Veblen's ideas recur in many subsequent accounts of sport. Theodor 
Adorno, for example, argued that while modern sports might seem 'to restore 
to the body some of the functions of which the machine has deprived it . . . they 
do so only to train men all the more inexorably to serve the machine'. 57 


When the body was considered a machine, its workings were discussed in terms 
of 'fuel', 'efficiency' and 'waste'. The early twentieth century saw the develop- 


ment of nutrition as a field, led by Horace Fletcher, champion of mastication 
and 'rationally economic alimentation'. The body could, Fletcher promised, be 
run on the same principles as an efficiently managed factory. 58 These ideas 
quickly filtered through into popular fiction. The 'decivilization' of the dog Buck 
in Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) is, rather oddly, signalled by his 
adoption of Fletcherite principles. Buck is said to have 'achieved an internal as 
well as an external economy. He could eat anything, no matter how loathsome 
or indigestible and once eaten, the juices of his stomach extracted the least par- 
ticle of nutriment; and his blood carried it to the farthest reaches of his body, 
building into the toughest and stoutest of tissues.' 59 

But while Buck might have been able to eat anything and still flourish as 
an efficient organism, human workers tended to have more particular nutri- 
tional needs. In the boxer's case, this invariably meant lots of meat. Discus- 
sions of meat in boxing stories (fictional and non-fictional) have traditionally 
assumed a rather magical aura: the boxer must eat meat in order to be meaty 
enough to fight against other slabs of men. It was easy for these activities to get 
confused. While Rocky, 'the Italian stallion', trains by punching sides of frozen 
beef, Jake La Motta (alternately described as a 'fucking gorilla', a 'fat pig' and 
a 'raging bull' in Martin Scorsese's film) hurls a steak across the room at his 
wife: 'You overcook it, it's no good. It defeats its own purpose.' 60 When Oliver 
Twist knocks out Noah Claypole in Dickens's 1838 novel, Mrs Sowerberry thinks 
the boy has gone mad. Mr Bumble soon puts her right: 'It's not Madness, ma'am 
. . . It's Meat.' 61 

Boxing became linked with meat partly because of the sport's early associ- 
ation with John Bull Englishness, and partly because many early boxers, includ- 
ing Tom Spring, Jem Belcher and Peter 'Young Rumpsteak' Crawley, were 
butchers; Moses Browne's 1736 poem, 'A Survey of the Amphitheatre', describes 
'gentle butchers' engaged in 'that brotherhood's peculiar sport'. 62 Butchery was 
a trade that required considerable upper-body strength and provided a ready 
supply of prime steaks. The latter, rather than the former, was considered the 
significant factor, and early training manuals paid a great deal of attention to 
what should and should not be consumed. Francis Dowling, in Fistiana (1841), 
rejected 'young meat such as veal and lamb, [and] all white flesh, whether game 
or poultry' as 'good for nothing'. Only bloody beef contained sufficient 'nour- 
ishment for the muscle', and some maintained, the spirit. 63 Over a hundred 
years later, Norman Mailer was appalled at the thought of Ali eating fish and re- 
lieved to hear he had 'resumed the flesh of animals'. 4 

Sporting nutritionists were not invented in the twentieth century. An obses- 
sion with the boxer's diet first aroused public interest in the 1810 run-up to Tom 
Cribb's rematch with Tom Molineaux. Cribb's trainer, Captain Barclay, was 
determined that his boxer should lose two-and-a-half stone before the fight, and 
put him on a strict regime, even reputedly monitoring his excrement. Black- 
wood's Magazine ran a satirical article on the subject: 


In the morning, at four of the clock, a serving-man doth enter my cham- 
ber, bringing me a cup containing half one quart of pig's urine, which 
I do drink ... At breakfast I doe commonly eat 12 goose's eggs, dressed 
in whale's oil, wherefrom I experience much good effects. For dinner I 
doe chiefly prefer a roasted cat, whereof the hair has first been burned 
by the fire. If it be stuffed with salted herrings which are a good and 
pleasant fish, it will be better . . . 65 

And so on. But while popular mythology maintained that boxers are never short 
of meat - in Sybil, Disraeli's novel of 'the hungry forties', the only customers 
whom Mother Carey believes might be able to afford her 'butcher's meat' are 
prize-fighters or the mayor himself- the fighters themselves frequently told a 
different story. 66 The often-impoverished Daniel Mendoza concluded his reflec- 
tions on training by stressing that 'above all, a man should be kept easy and 
comfortable in his situation, and therefore not be suffered to want a guinea in 
his pocket, or a good table to resort to'. 67 

Turn-of-the-century socialist fiction developed this theme at length. Meat 
is so important to Jack London's 1909 short story A Piece of Steak' and Arthur 
Morrison's 'Three Rounds' (1894) that it might almost be a character itself. 

In 'Three Rounds', Neddy Milton arrives at the Regent Pub on the Bethnal 
Green Road in London's East End 'after a day's questing for an odd job'. He 
has put his name down to fight in an attempt to 'mend his fortunes' and pro- 
vide an 'avenue of advancement', but the match turns out to be merely more 
casual labour. Neddy is 'weary in the feet' from having walked all day; rain has 
dampened his shoulders and seeped into what he fears is a hole in his boot. 
More worrying is the hole in his stomach. Breakfast was ten hours ago and 
since then he has had only 'a half-pint of four-ale'. Now it 'lay cold on the stom- 
ach for want of solid company'. At home less than half a loaf remains, and he 
knows that if he goes there his mother will insist he have it. He has spent a 
shilling as his fee for the fight and he now contemplates all he could have 
bought with it: 'fried fish, for instance, whereof the aromas warm and rank, 
met him thrice in a hundred yards, and the frizzle, loud or faint, sang in his ears 
all along the Bethnal Green Road'. But he has invested, or gambled, the money 
in the fight and the promise it offers of something better than fish. For the time 
being, he must go hungry. 68 

Morrison continues the food theme in the pub. There, a potential backer 
asserts that 'it would be unsafe to back Neddy to fight anything but a beefsteak'; 
instead, unfortunately, his opponent is to be a butcher - 'red-faced, well-fed, 
fleshy, and confident', and a stone heavier. At the last minute, a friend gives 
Neddy a bite of his sausage roll - it is 'pallid', 'a heavy and a clammy thing' 
(processed rather than fresh meat) and, with the weight of a lump of cold lead', 
it sticks 'half-way', making breathing difficult. 69 

The situation is not promising and Morrison describes a fight that is hard 
labour for both men. Neddy, however, is 'a competent workman, with all his 


tools in order', and he gets down to work. By the second round, Patsy, the well- 
fed butcher, is still going strong, but hungry Neddy has 'a worn feeling in his 
arm-muscles' and notices his strength going 'earlier than in the last round'. He 
seems to be fading fast; aware of himself only as 'somebody with no control of 
his legs and no breath to spit away the blood from his nose as it ran and stuck 
over his lips.' He is knocked down but the bell saves him from being counted 
out. Behind on points and with 'little more than half a minute's boxing left in 
him' - the machine running on empty - his only chance to win in the third, 
and final, round, is by a knockout. Somehow or other - it is a mystery to him 
- this happens. 'Business' over, Neddy returns to the bar, but 'the stout red- 
faced men who smoked fourpenny cigars and drank special Scotch' ignore him. 
This hasn't been his big break after all, just another meaningless job. Perhaps 
next time, or the one after that, he thinks as he lays his head on the table and 
falls asleep. 

At first glance, London's approach in 'A Piece of Steak' seems more roman- 
tic. He describes his has-been boxer-protagonist, Tom King, leaving to go out 
into the night', into the jungle: 'to get meat for his mate and cubs - not like the 
modern working-man going to his machine grind, but in the old, primitive, 
royal, animal way, by fighting for it'. 7 ° 

London often brought up the distinction between the drudgeries and 
indignities of 'machine grind' and the 'old, primitive, royal, animal way'. 71 'The 
Somnambulists', written in 1906 at the height of the intense concern about 
American meat production, imagines a meat manufacturer sitting down to a 
roast beef dinner. As the 'greasy juices of the meat' settle on his moustache, the 
manufacturer is 'fastidiously nauseated at the thought of two prize-fighters 
bruising each other with their fists'. And this is not the end of his hypocrisy: 
'because it will cost him some money, he will refuse to protect the machines in 
his factory, though he is aware that the lack of such protection every year man- 
gles, batters, and destroys out of all humanness thousands of working-men, 
women, and children'. 72 For traditional boxing butchers (sources of pure meat 
in two senses), the modern world has substituted factories in which machines 
'batter' their operators as well as animal carcasses. 'Far better', London con- 
cluded, 'to have the front of one's face pushed in by the fist of an honest prize- 
fighter than to have the lining of one's stomach corroded by the embalmed beef 
of a dishonest manufacturer'. 73 

Discussing A Piece of Steak' in 1945, George Orwell expressed anxiety about 
the politics of London's 'instinctive tendency to accept via victis as a law of 
Nature': 'It is not so much an approval of the harshness of Nature, as a mystical 
belief that Nature is like that.' 74 But London's opposition between work and 
honest natural pugilism soon breaks down. The language that he uses to de- 
scribe the fight continually confuses the primitive with the modern. If Tom King 
is presented as a 'fighting animal', he is also, like Neddy Milton, a modern urban 
worker, trying to scrape together a living. 'Sheer animal' that he is, fighting is 
nevertheless 'a plain business proposition' to King. In boxing terms at least, he 



Jack London in boxing 
pose in an undated 

is 'old', and so he must fight with a 'policy of economy', in a manner that is 'par- 
simonious of effort', showing little 'expenditure of effort'. His experience is 
described as his 'chief asset'. The story revolves around another, missing, asset: 
the 'piece of steak' which he could not afford to have before the fight, and which, 
he thinks, would have enabled him to win. 

A great and terrible hatred rose up in him for the butchers who would 
not give him credit ... A piece of steak was such a little thing, a few 
pennies at best; yet it meant thirty quid to him. 

What Orwell terms London's 'natural urge towards the glorification of beauty' 
is thus checked by 'his knowledge, theoretical as well as practical, of what 


industrial capitalism means in terms of human suffering'. 75 While the meaty 
imagery that pervades this and other boxing stories evokes a world in which 
the 'old, primitive, royal, animal' ways still operate, it is clear that in the urban 
jungle, steak is simply what the modern worker requires to turn himself into 
the piece of meat that the capitalist 'machine' requires. The 'abysmal brute' is 
nothing more than a lean and hungry proletarian'. 76 The 'fight game', Midge 
Kelly tells his brother in the classic 1949 noir movie, Champion, is like any other 
business - only the blood shows'. 77 

London's only (human) alternative to capitalist boxing comes in his 1911 
story, 'The Mexican', in which Felipe Rivera becomes a fighter to earn money to 
buy guns for the Mexican revolution. 78 Rivera's opponent, Danny Ward, is yet 
another casual worker who 'fought for money, and for the easy way of life that 
money would bring'. 'But the things Rivera fought for', London insists, 'burned 
in his brain.' 79 

PLOTS of exhaustion: muscle bankruptcy 

Both 'A Piece of Steak' and 'Three Rounds' are what Philip Fisher calls 'plots of 
exhaustion', plots concerned with strength and weakness rather than good and 
evil. 'Their essential matters are youth and age, freshness and exhaustion. 
Behind the plot of decline is the Darwinian description of struggle, survival, 
and extinction.' 80 The naturalist story tells not of an individual's gradually 
improving social position, Fisher argues, but rather of a rapid rise to the sexual 
reproductive peak, followed by a long, slow physical decline. Most of life then, 
on this model, is the story of decline. What Fisher terms the 'chronicle of sub- 
traction' is exemplified in Sister Carrie: 

A man's fortune, or material progress, is very much the same as his bod- 
ily growth. Either he is growing stronger, healthier, wiser, as the youth 
approaching manhood; or he is growing weaker, older, less incisive men- 
tally, as the man approaching old age. There are no other states. 81 

The boxing story provides an accelerated version of this phenomenon. If the 
arc of a man's life in general is short and sharp, that of a boxer's is consider- 
ably shorter and sharper. This was a theme in boxing literature from its very 
beginnings in Homer and Virgil, where the 'aged' (i.e. 35-year-old) boxer faced 
callow youth. 'No men are more subject to the caprice or changes of fortune 
than the pugilists', wrote Pierce Egan; 'victory brings them fame, riches, and 
patrons; . . . their lives pass on pleasantly, till defeat comes and reverses the 
scene.' Finally, 'a premature end puts a period to their misfortune'. 82 As 
Roland Barthes observed, the story of boxing is the story of 'the rise and fall 
offortunes'. 83 

The naturalist emphasis, however, was less on ironic reversal than on 
thermodynamic expenditure. 'Vitality cannot be used over again,' wrote Jack 

London, in the popular terms of the late nineteenth century. 'If it be expended 
on one thing, there is none left for the other thing.' 84 London believed that the 
amount of vitality or energy available to an individual could be calculated quite 
precisely. In 1910, two days before Jack Johnson beat Jim Jeffries, he published 
an article applying 'a little science called histology', which, he claimed, 'has a 
lot of bearing on Jeff's case'. 'Each creature,' London wrote, 'is born with so 
many potential cell generations. When these generations are used up the crea- 
ture dies . . . Each man has only so many cell generations, which means each 
man has only so much work in him.' From this, he deduced, 'each fighter is 
born with so many fights in him. When he has made those fights he is finished.' 
Predicting the outcome of a fight is no longer, then, a question of comparing 
the training methods of the fighters or noting who has recently had steak for 
dinner. Rather, commentators (and gamblers) should devise a formula to cal- 
culate how many cells have been lost by asking how many fights the boxer had 
fought, and how gruelling those fights were. Jeffries, London concluded, has 
plenty of cells left 'alive in his muscles'. But 'can he whip Johnson? This is an- 
other story.' 85 

In a 1906 essay, on 'what life means to me', London explained his decision 
to give up manual work for writing in similar terms. Muscle-power, the 
labourer's sole form of capital, did not renew itself. Determined not to die a 
'muscle bankrupt', the nineteen-year-old London made up his mind to sell 
brain-power instead. 86 Authorship was not a matter of inspiration, but of rig- 
orous work habits, and a watchful eye on market demand. Writing, like box- 
ing, was supposed to be a way of escaping the factory, but somehow the logic 
of the factory remained. 87 Byron may have had to tussle with metaphors and 
hostile critics, but London faced more serious opponents. He frequently de- 
scribed the effort of writing and publishing as physical, especially when deal- 
ing with the machines of literary production. In John Barleycorn, an encounter 
with a particularly uncomfortable typewriter is described as a 'bout', but that 
is nothing compared to Martin Eden (1909), where the eponymous hero must 
tussle with 'the editorial machine', a 'cunning arrangement of cogs that 
changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the 
stamps'. Although he is 'a good fighter', Martin is soon 'bleeding to death, and 
not years, but weeks would determine the fight'. 88 However much 'brain- 
power' the business of writing involved, no one could deny that it also was a 
vigorous, manly activity (illus. 42). 


Under the old prize-fighting rules, the precise amount of energy a boxer had in 
him was measured not in terms of the weight of his blows but of how long he 
lasted. Many of the classic fights of the nineteenth century ran to 80 or 90 
rounds. A round, however, had no fixed duration, and was usually, as Bernard 
Shaw noted, 'terminated by the fall of one of the combatants (in practice usually 


both of them), and was followed by an interval of half a minute for recupera- 
tion'. This meant that whenever a boxer needed a rest he could pretend to be 
knocked down. Under the Queensberry rules, the number of rounds was pre- 
determined, as was their duration (usually three or four minutes) and 'a com- 
batant who did not stand up to his opponent continuously during that time 
(ten seconds being allowed for rising in the event of a knock-down) lost the 
battle'. 'That unobtrusively slipped-on ten seconds limit', argued Shaw, 'has 
produced the modern glove fight.' 89 Under the old rules, it would not have 
mattered if a man stayed down for twelve or fifteen seconds, and 30-second 
knockout blows were fairly rare. Indeed, without gloves, a big blow was as likely 
to break a fighter's hands as knock down his opponent. Exhaustion was the usual 
reason for a man to lose. 

But under the Queensberry rules, after 10 seconds, the fighter must either 
concede defeat or else 'stagger to his feet in a helpless condition and be eagerly 
battered into insensibility before he can recover his powers of self-defence'. 90 It 
was not until 1927 that a rule was introduced forbidding a boxer to hover over his 
downed opponent. Following its introduction, Gene Tunney benefited from a 
fourteen-second rest while the referee tried to persuade Jack Dempsey to go to a 
neutral corner. The fight is remembered as the 'Battle of the Long Count', but 
charges of a long count were not uncommon. After Jim Corbett was defeated by 
Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897, his manager insisted that the film of the fight be shown 
so that the length of time Fitzsimmons spent on the floor in the sixth round could 
be checked. Several stopwatches confirmed thirteen seconds until it was discov- 
ered that the projectionist had slowed down the hand-cranked machine. 91 Crafty 
boxers, and their managers, always did what they could to extend their rest and 
cut short that of their opponents. Some fighters were renowned for 'accidentally' 
stepping on the bell to cut a round short. The new rules made knockout blows 
much more likely. This development had serious medical consequences, greatly 
increasing 'the likelihood that fighters would become brain-damaged over a long 
career, for the trauma of repeated concussions had a cumulative effect, produc- 
ing lesions that resulted in the "punch-drunk" syndrome', argues Eliott Gorn. In 
other words, 'boxing might look a bit less brutal, but became more dangerous'. 92 

The increased frequency of the knockout blow, combined with a limitation 
on the number of rounds that could be fought, also meant that boxing matches 
now lasted, at most, little more than an hour. Faster-paced, more offensive, and 
always with the potential for high drama, boxing was now much more mar- 
ketable as a spectator sport; particularly so when film entered into the equa- 
tion. The 'most important result of the Queensberry rules', Gorn writes, 'was 
not too make the ring less violent but to make it more assimilable to the enter- 
tainment industry and to mass commercial spectacles'. 93 

In 1847 Karl Marx wrote that since the 'pendulum of the clock has become 
as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed 
of two locomotives', men have been 'effaced by their labour'. 'Time is everything, 
man is nothing; he is, at most, time's carcase.' 94 Certainly, as the nineteenth 


6 4 

George Belcher, 
Time & Judgement at 
the National Sporting 
Club (J. H. Douglas 
and E. Zerega), 1898. 

til J» « /f^w lit. . 

century (and the industrial revolution) progressed, the clock assumed an ever- 
increasing importance in determining the pace of working lives, and gradually 
both worker and employer internalized its regular rhythms of work and rest. 
Under the Queensberry rules, the sound of the gong and the ten-count become 
boxing's equivalents of the factory whistle. 95 

Once the precise measurement of time became paramount, and before auto- 
matic devices took over, the timekeeper assumed a key role in the story of the 
fight, intervening as a deus ex machina to determine the course of its action. 96 
Conan Doyle's Robert Montgomery is saved because the end of the round is 
announced ('Time!') before he can be counted out, while Neddy Milton wins 
because his opponent fails to rise while 'the time-keeper watched the seconds- 
hands pass its ten points' (illus. 64). 

It did not take long for writers to find metaphorical potential in the call of 
time. In Arthur Morrison's novel Cunning Murrell (1900), set during the 
Crimean War, Roboshobery Dove is happily watching a boxing match on Can- 
vey Island when he catches sight of a newspaper headline, 'The Baltic Fleet'. 
'And then of a sudden, just at the cry of "Time", the paper went grey and blue 
before Roboshobery Dove's eyes, and the tumult of shouts died in his ears.' The 
paper had announced the death of a man he knew. 97 


The conjunction between calls of time in boxing and in life is further devel- 
oped in John Masefield's 1911 poem, 'The Everlasting Mercy'. The poem features 
a fight over poaching rights between Saul Kane and his best friend. They box 
according to the Queensberry rules and Masefield ends each stanza with the 
call of 'Time!' Timing proves significant to the outcome of the fight; the 'clink, 
clink, clink' of brandy flasks that mark time save Kane from defeat in one round, 
and he wins by a knockout in another. But Masefield also suggests that Kane's 
life can be divided into rounds. The first few stanzas measure its progress in 
decades, 'from '41 to '51', 'from '51 to '61', 'from '61 to '67'. But the fight marks a 
change of pace. The night following his victory, Kane lies drunkenly awake lis- 
tening to the village church clock 'ticking the time out' and ponders how it 'ticks 
to different men'. After several pages of soul-searching, he ends up in a pub 
where he is confronted by a Quaker woman, preaching temperance. As the clock 
chimes and closing time is announced, 'something broke inside my brain'. 'Miss 
Bourne stood still and I stood still, / And "Tick. Slow. Tick. Slow" went the 
clock.' Christ, it seems, has dealt his sin a knock-down blow. 98 

Referees and timekeepers also became the subjects of paintings, most 
notably Eakins's Taking the Count (1898) and Between Rounds (1898-9)." The 
tension of concentrated immobility is the most striking thing about these works, 
uniting all the participants in moments out of time. 100 Taking the Count was 
Eakins's first prize-fighting painting and was never exhibited during his life- 
time. A huge work, it depicts, almost lifesize, the boxer Charlie McKeever stand- 
ing waiting while the referee, a portrait of sportswriter Henry Walter Schlichter, 
counts to ten. McKeever's opponent, Joe Mack, crouches in the right-hand cor- 
ner, seemingly waiting until the last moment to rise. His second can be seen 
offering advice between the legs of McKeever and Schlichter. A spectator sitting 
underneath one of the circus banners is looking at his watch, perhaps to confirm 
the accuracy of the count. Between Rounds depicts Billy Smith being attended 
to by his seconds (illus. 52). A poster advertising the fight between Smith and 
Tim Callahan hangs in the upper left corner of the painting. Smith's out- 
stretched arms are reflected in those of his manager, Billy McCarney, who fans 
him; on a lower level, those of the timekeeper, and on a higher level, those of 
spectators leaning over the balcony. But, unlike Salutat, which wholeheartedly 
brings participants and spectators together, Between Rounds suggests the limits 
of knowledge for both ringside spectators and viewers of the painting. For one 
thing, as Michael Fried notes, we can 'only barely glimpse the watchface being 
studied by the timekeeper'. 101 The painting seems to distinguish those who, in 
various capacities, are engaged in some professional capacity from those who 
merely look on. The viewer is outside of, and slightly below, the ring. The time- 
keeper, the seconds, and the boxer are the central protagonists, but the police- 
man standing on the left, and the men in the press box (including perhaps an 
artist) are also active participants. The presence of each of these professional 
men is necessary for the fight to proceed. If this is a kind of circus, as the balcony 
banners suggest, it is also a keenly run business. 102 



In 1878 Eadweard Muybridge produced his first sequential photographs of mov- 
ing horses. In the 1880s his experiments (with Thomas Eakins) at the University 
of Pennsylvania resulted in over 100,000 negatives of animal and human bod- 
ies in motion, including photographs of men boxing and shadow-boxing (illus 
50). By looking at these sequences, viewers could learn more about both the 
way that bodies moved and the way the brain constructed an image of that 
movement out of many still components. Muybridge's photographs were said 
to support various contemporary theories about human nature. On the one 
hand, they drew attention to the similarities between human and animal move- 
ment, and refused to discriminate between methods of viewing humans and 
traditionally lower' forms of life, and so were regarded as evidence for evolu- 
tionary theory. On the other hand, they supported the popular metaphor of the 
human machine whose every movement could be timed and quantified. 

Staging, and looking at, these images in the name of disinterested scientific 
curiosity, had, of course, nothing to do with the shocking and sensational world 
of prize-fighting. It was in the name of science that men (some from the univer- 
sity, others from local gyms) and women (most of whom were artists' models) 
allowed themselves to be photographed nude. Eakins conducted similarly stark 
and decontextualized motion studies, but many of his photographs from this 
period contain enough contextual setting and enough drama to complicate the 
scientific interest of his 'naked series'. 103 The sparring figures in Two Male Stu- 
dents Posing as Boxers (1886), for example, are carefully positioned within an 
artist's studio in which a cast of a man's torso sits next to a closed easel from 
which boxing gloves hang; between the men we glimpse a painting of an inver- 
tebrate skeleton upon another easel. The aesthetic study of anatomy, in various 
forms, is carefully signalled (illus. 65). In its woodland setting and careful 
arrangement of spectators' limbs, Seven Males, Nude, Two Boxing at Centre (1883) 
is rather different (illus. 66); another genre scene, it evokes both pastoral clas- 
sicism and Manet's Dejeuner sur Vherbe (1863). Both Manet's painting and 
Eakins's photograph prominently position a reclining figure with knee bent in 
the bottom left-hand corner; in both cases a figure in the bottom left-hand cor- 
ner observes activity in the centre of the image. Like Manet, Eakins wanted to 
make the nude 'modern'; for the American artist, however, the essence of mod- 
ern nudity (like that of classical Greece on which it modelled itself) was com- 
munal and male. 104 Eakins's 1890s paintings depict the enclosed all-male world 
of professional boxing; his 1880s photographs explore a parallel community 
made up of his students at the Pennsylvania Academy and the Arts Students' 
League. It is the easy intimacy of that community that is most apparent in these 

A desire to consider humanity scientifically also inspired literary work, but 
here too other interests tended to compromise a properly scientific methodol- 
ogy. In his classic 1880 exposition of naturalist technique, Emile Zola compared 



Circle of Thomas 
Eakins, Two Male 
Students Posing as 
Boxers, c. 1886. 

Thomas Eakins, 
Seven Males, Nude, 
Two Boxing at Centre, 
c. 1883. 

writing a novel to performing a laboratory experiment; an experiment in which 
the effects of a specific heredity and environment on a character or group of 
characters was to be observed. One of the most frequently performed natural- 
ist experiments was to test (once again) the thesis that living bodies . . . [can be] 
brought and reduced to the general mechanism of matter . . . that man's body 
is a machine'. 105 For the experiment to be successful, however, it had to be per- 
formed in a carefully controlled environment. The setting was to be both closely 
restricted and extreme enough to reveal what were thought of as the essentials 


of human nature. Characters 'must be twisted from the ordinary, wrenched out 
of the quiet, uneventful round of life, and flung into the throes of a vast and ter- 
rible drama that works itself out in unleashed passions, in blood and in sudden 
death'. 106 Examples of this type of extreme and restricted experiment include 
'The Open Boat' (1897), in which Stephen Crane considers the effect of four ship- 
wrecked men unable to land their boat, and McTeague (1899) where Frank Norris 
ends his antagonists' struggle for gold in an inescapable Death Valley. 

Jack London's experimental settings range from the frozen snows of Alaska 
to ships in the violent seas of the Pacific, and to the socially brutal world of the 
boxing ring. In such environments, as this fight scene from Martin Eden suggests, 
sophisticated men swiftly revert (or devolve) to what Zola calls 'the animal 

Then they fell upon each other, like young bulls, in all the glory of 
youth, with naked fists, with hatred, with desire to hurt, to maim, to de- 
stroy. All the painful, thousand years' gains of man in his upward climb 
through creation were lost. Only the electric light remained, a mile- 
stone on the path of the great human adventure. Martin and Cheese- 
Face were two savages, of the stone age, of the squatting place and the 
tree refuge. They sank lower and lower into the muddy abyss, back to 
the dregs of the raw beginnings of life, striving blindly and chemically, 
as atoms strive, as the star-dust of the heavens strives, colliding, recoil- 
ing and colliding again and eternally again. 

In this scene, Barthes's story of the 'rise and fall of fortunes' seems to be straight- 
forwardly reduced to the colliding of atoms and star-dust, but reading on, the 
issues are complicated considerably, as London introduces Martin's own per- 
spective on the scene. He is described as being 'both onlooker and participant': 

It was to him, with his splendid power of vision, like staring into a kine- 
toscope. . . His long months of culture and refinement shuddered at 
the sight; then the present was blotted out of his consciousness, and 
the ghosts of the past possessed him . . . 107 

If the boxing ring is only one of many settings in which the validity of natural- 
ist ideas can be tested and observed, it is one of the few in which the act of observa- 
tion itself is emphasized. In boxing narratives - where the protagonist performs his 
rite in front of an audience - there are several levels of spectatorship operating. The 
fighters survey each other and the crowd watches them, while the writer or painter 
or filmmaker observes, and interprets, both fighters and crowd. The scientific 
observation of atoms colliding or muscles moving always exists in tension with 
multiple and often conflicting (financial, erotic, even aesthetic) viewing interests. 

Martin Eden compares his sense of being both participant and observer in 
the fight to 'staring into a kinetoscope'. Thomas Edison's kinetoscope was the 


first commercially produced device for viewing film, and according to Terry 
Ramsaye, the opening of the first Kinetoscope Parlor on Broadway in 1894 marks 
the birth of the film industry. Initially there were only ten machines and, Ram- 
saye noted, 'long queues of patrons stood waiting to look into the peep hole 
machines': 'the spectator paid his twenty-five cents admission, and passed down 
the line to peer into the peep holes, while an attendant switched on the 
machines one after another. Presently Edison supplied a nickel-in-the-slot 
attachment which eliminated the man at the switches.' 108 

London evokes two aspects of the kinetoscope experience. Unlike later 
cinema-going, hunching over the peephole machine was an essentially private 
experience - the viewer did not know whether those around him were watching 
what he was, and, because the world around had been blocked out, what he saw 
could seem to come from his own consciousness. The intimacy and powerfully 
engaging nature of kinetoscope films is also apparent. At the height of the fight, 
Eden is somehow detached enough from his own actions to imagine watching 
them, but, ironically, that very act of observation so involves him that he re- 
engages and feels himself a participant again. 109 

It is unsurprising that Eden (and London) associated film with boxing. The 
very earliest films featured boxing matches, staged and choreographed in 
Edison's 'Black Maria' studio. 110 The first boxing film was made in August 1894 
and consisted of six rounds of a minute each between minor prize-fighters, Mike 
Leonard and Jack Cushing. There was a seven-minute interval between rounds 
as the film was changed. Viewers paid 10c and, through the kinetoscope peep- 
hole, saw a round; paid another 10c, and saw the next. The result of the contest 
was kept secret, but 'some thrifty people went straight to the sixth Kinetoscope, 
to see only the end of the fight'. Since that portion of the film wore out, the 
secret remains. 111 The film was so popular that the following month another 
was made, this time featuring Peter Courtney against then champion Jim Corbett, 
who was repeatedly instructed to turn his face to the camera. 112 

The technology was developing fast, and the following year the Kinetoscope 
Exhibition Company developed a method (known as the 'Latham loop' and used 
in most cameras and projectors ever since) of filming continuously for eight 
minutes (a seven-minute increase). They used this to make a four-minute film 
of 'Young Griffo' vs. 'Battling Charles Barnett' on the roof of Madison Square 
Gardens, and, by shining an arc lamp behind a kinetoscope, projected the film 
on 20 May 1895; only a small, indistinct image was produced, but this was 'the 
world's first commercial presentation of projected film'. 113 

From 1895 to 1897, attempts were made to stage, and film, the heavyweight 
championship fight between Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons. Fight promoter 
Dan Stuart had great difficulties in securing a location that would be free from 
legal interference, and would also suit Enoch Rector, who had an exclusive con- 
tract to film the contest. Stuart was the first promoter to recognize that he could 
earn more in film distribution rights than in gate receipts. The fight (or in Stu- 
art's words, the 'fistic carnival') finally took place in Carson City, Nevada on 17 


PTwe OreRtwt Vneltfw of tfcc 

Jj me Heart Bictgrapfl 




mi Mi Sua 

Cuttf 1 4* iMm *** 

Tkt Hanatr _i t*-y ci.Li!>iLod id fm} nfc r - ma 1 
•Tih libitl*] OMh. 

Tbl ItLirf* hu jdu mra muni Ife i 
(hi alhiiii ■! 111 


ulta# HMCJLlrr&L V cfcHATUB -J, FUSSftS npntaH ta tin 

je»r* JUTWW *, SOJIEJtS. iO, Hmriatta Strut, tat «irfHL 

TO dU.iu hi i na tt III aktilTri tU 

■■" IP ! 


Poster advertising 
film of the Corbett- 
Fitzsimmons Record 
Prize Fight, London, 

March (St Patrick's Day) 1897; Fitzsimmons 
won in the fourteenth round with his 
famous 'solar plexus punch'. 114 'I consider 
that I have witnessed today the greatest 
fight with gloves that was ever held in this 
or any other country,' wrote gun-fighter 
Wyatt Earp for the New York World. 115 

Enoch Rector was at ringside with 
three cameras and 48,000 feet of film - he 
ended up using 11,000 (in other words, 
about two miles) which was finally edited 
to 2,880 feet, a figure whose significance 
becomes clear if we note that most films at 
this time used about 50 feet of film. The 
ring platform was painted with 'copy- 

spectators would know they were watching 
the real thing and not a re-enactment. (Rec- 
tor was right to worry, for fake fight films 
were common, and Sigmund Lubin's 'Re- 
production of the Corbett and Fitzsim- 
mons Fight', played by two freight handlers 
from the Pennsylvania terminal, came out 
a week before the Veriscope film and did 
good business in Philadelphia. 'What do 
you expect for 10 cents, anyhow?' asked Lubin. 116 ) Rector's four-reel Nevada fight 
film was the longest film yet seen, and it was shown as a prize exhibit at such up- 
market venues as New York's Academy of Music ('the first film invasion of the fa- 
mous old Academy') and London's Imperial Theatre. A poster announcing its 
showing at the Imperial Theatre advertised 'a revolution in amusement enter- 
prise' and 'Brobdignagian attractions' (sic) in the form of the 'two greatest novel- 
ties of the present century' (illus. 67). Henry James attended a showing, and 'quite 
revelled' in it. 117 Another writer who may have seen the film was James Joyce. In 
Ulysses (1922), young Patrick Dignam catches sight of a poster advertising a re- 
cent local boxing match, which sets him off reminiscing about other good 'puck- 
ers'. 'Fitzsimons', he thinks, is 'the best pucker going for strength', 'Jem Corbet' 
'the best pucker for science'. Fitzsimmons, only a middleweight, as Patrick re- 
calls, 'knocked the stuffings out of him, dodging and all'. 118 Ulysses is set in 1904, 
just seven years after the fight took place, and it is quite likely that Patrick's knowl- 
edge of it, and Joyce's, came from the Rector film. 

Corbett 's manager, William A. Brady, complained that while the film had 
made between $600,000 and $700,000, each fighter received only $80, 000. 119 
It didn't take long, however, before fighters, and their managers, negotiated a 
fairer share of the profits. 'Poor scrapper,' Bernard Shaw noted in 1901, 'is hardly 


the word for a modern fashionable pugilist', for the contests in which he engaged 
now took place 'in huge halls before enormous audiences, with cinematographs 
hard at work recording the scene for reproduction'. 120 

While the impact of film on the development of boxing was huge - open- 
ing up new and lucrative markets - it is fair to say that boxing also had an im- 
pact on the development of film. Claims for the relationship between the two 
vary from the circumspect - 'the evolution of the modern form of . . . [boxing] 
closely paralleled the development of the motion pictures' - to the bold - 'box- 
ing created cinema'. 121 Early filmmakers were interested in filming boxing 
matches for a variety of reasons - personal, commercial and technical. Person- 
ally, it just happened that the Latham brothers and Enoch Rector (collectively 
the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company) were interested in boxing. Commercially, 
fight films were good business because they appealed to the male working-class 
audiences most likely to frequent kinetoscope parlours. Technically, although 
early cinema was obsessed with 'movement for movement's sake', early cam- 
eras were heavy and had a restricted viewpoint; it was, however, quite simple to 
set cameras to cover the relatively small space of the boxing ring within which 
lots of movement took place. 122 'The cameraman could then grind away, secure 
in the certainty that the picture was not getting away from him, unless indeed 
the combatants jumped the ropes and ran away'. 123 

While boxing films were seen as a way of making boxing more palatable to 
middle-class tastes - spectators would be 'Without any of the Demoralizing 
Surroundings Unavoidable at the Actual Fight' - the association of film with 
the 'odium of pugilism' damaged attempts to gentrify the new art. 124 In The Art 
of the Moving Picture (1915), Vachel Lindsay wrote of 'trying to convert a talented 
and noble friend to the films. The first time we went there was a prize-fight 
between a black and a white man, not advertised, used as a filler. I said it was 
queer, and would not happen again. The next time my noble friend was persuaded 
to go, there was a cock-fight . . . The convert was not made.' 125 Lindsay's example 
is complicated by the fact that the film featured interracial boxing (something 
I'll consider in more detail in the next chapter), but there was also a broader 
sense among the middle-classes that a film show almost inevitably involved 
boxing. 'It is not very creditable to our civilization', complained the New York 
Times in 1897, 'that an achievement of what is now called the veriscope that has 
attracted and will attract the widest attention should be the representation of 
the prizefight'. 126 By 1912, an English critic, Frederick Talbot, noted the 'consid- 
erable opposition' which prize-fight films met. This, he said, 'should be wel- 
comed as a healthy sign even by the film-producers themselves. The 
cinematograph can surely do more elevating, profitable and entertaining work 
than the recording of a prize-fight.' 127 

Before the first dedicated cinemas (the nickelodeons) opened in 1905, box- 
ing films were often shown as part of an evening's entertainment at a music hall 
or in a burlesque or vaudeville show, where they often drew upon the conven- 
tions of the acts that surrounded them. 128 This generally meant matching tall, 


thin men against short, stout ones. 129 One of the great subjects for turn of the 
century British film-makers was the Boer War, and, although most films were 
topical, a few comic dramas were made. In 1900, for example, a film entitled 
'Prize fight or Glove Contest between John Bull and President Kruger' was pro- 
moted as a comedy, while in the previous year, the Warwick Trade Co. (Ltd) 
produced a three-round, three-reel 'Comic Boxing Match' in which three foot six 
inches defeated six foot three inches on the deck of a ship bound for Africa. 130 
Charlie Chaplin's career began in the English music hall and several of his 
very early films feature similar slapstick pantomime. In Mack Sennett's The 
Knockout (1914), he has a bit -part as a referee who gets hit quite frequently and 
provides no help to cowardly heavyweight Fatty Arbuckle in his fight against a 
real boxer, Edgar Kennedy. When he loses the match, Fatty grabs a revolver from 
the attending sheriff, and the film ends with a spirited chase involving the 
Keystone Cops (illus. 68). A few days later Chaplin made another film with a 
pugilistic theme, Mabel's Married Life. There he plays a husband who is jealous 
of his wife's flirtation with a burly man. 131 He retreats to a saloon and gets very 
drunk, while Mabel, angry because Charlie did not defend himself, goes out 
and buys a boxing dummy. He comes home and, thinking he is taking on his 

Charlie Chaplin and 
Fatty Arbuckle in a 
poster advertising 
Counted Out (1914), 
also known as The 



rival, rights the dummy. The dummy wins. 132 By the following year Chaplin had 
become both director and 'the tramp', and so in The Champion (1915), some 
pathos is injected to counter the comedy of balletic violence. With his faithful 
and hungry bulldog, the tramp find a lucky horseshoe just as he passes a training 
camp advertising for a sparring partner 'who can take a beating'. After watching 
several fighters being carried out on a stretcher, he puts the horseshoe into his 
glove. He wins. Suddenly favourite for the championship, Charlie, billed as the 
'Jersey Mosquito', now has to fight without his horseshoe. His dog watches the 
fight, smiles when he lands a punch, and becomes fierce and then gloomy when 
he is knocked down. Finally the dog enters the ring and distracts Charlie's 
opponent so that he can land a knockout punch. Size, strength, and even Anglo- 
Saxon fair play emerge as no match for immigrant cleverness, cunning and luck. 

Chaplin revisited these vaudeville boxing balletics in City Lights (1931), a 
defiantly silent film at the start of the sound era. As in The Champion, the tramp 
only resorts to boxing because he needs to feed another. This time it is a blind 
flower girl. He happily agrees to take part in a fixed fight, but unfortunately his 
opponent disappears after finding out the police are after him. Instead he is 
faced with Hank Mann, who is not only much bigger but refuses to take part in 
the fix. As his anxiety rises, Charlie begins to mince and flirt with the giant. His 
opponent is so unnerved by this that he hides behind a curtain to change into 
his shorts. The tramp has once more gained a (temporary) advantage over a 
physically superior opponent, one who finds sitting next to a supposed homo- 
sexual more frightening than being hit. 133 (Subsequently, however, Charlie is 
knocked out twice - once in the ring, and once by a falling glove in the dressing 
room.) Mark Winokur argues that these later films are not slapstick but what 
he calls transformative comedy. While 'slapstick insists on perpetuating into 
the realm of fantasy the insult to the body that occurs in the world', 'transforma- 
tive comedy', he argues, 'insists on the intelligence of the body in avoiding insult 
(successfully or otherwise)'. 134 Although Chaplin was a fan of boxing and a friend 
of boxers, his films debunk much of the masculine and nativist posturing that sur- 
rounded it. 135 

Such debunking was not, of course, the ambition of D. W. Griffith in his 
1915 film of the Civil War and its aftermath, The Birth of a Nation; the film most 
often credited with making movie-going respectable in America. Accompanied 
by an orchestral score, it was shown in large legitimate theatres at high prices 
and was an enormous (if hugely controversial) success. The Birth of a Nation 
aspired to the status of serious history as well as entertainment; Griffith's next 
film, Intolerance (1916), was a philosophical meditation on the development of 
a 'universal theme' through the ages. Only twenty years had passed since 
Corbett vs Fitzsimmons had first wowed audiences, but the aspirations of film- 
makers had changed enormously. It might seem odd then that in 1919 Griffith 
decided to film Thomas Burke's story of a London prize-fighter and his daugh- 
ter. 136 Broken Blossoms is about the destruction of a young girl (Lillian Gish) who 
is trapped between two competing versions of masculinity - one passive, oriental 


and threatening miscegenation (represented by her suitor, the Yellow Man, 
played by Richard Barthelmess), the other active, Anglo-Saxon and hyper- 
masculine (represented by her father, a prize-fighter called Battling Burrows, 
played by Donald Crisp and described in an inter-title as an 'abysmal brute, a 
gorilla of the jungles of East London'). 137 The Yellow Man leans languidly against 
walls and on couches; Burrows pummels both his opponent (the 'Limehouse 
Tiger', played by real boxer, Kid McCoy) and his daughter (his 'punching bag'). 
The dialectic between these modes of conduct can also be mapped onto the 
formal conflict between the stasis of painting and the constant motion of 
narrative film. Dudley Andrew notes that while the Yellow Man is seen 'in gently 
curved poses which concentrate the dramatic energy within the frame', Battling 
Burrows 's thrashing movements thrust 'our attention out of the frame and to the 
object of his aggression'. 138 Brigitte Peucker suggests that Griffith's decision to 
represent Burrows as a boxer was a way of alluding to 'proto- and early cinematic 
films'; both boxers and boxing movies were crude and primitive. 139 No one gets 
out of Broken Blossoms alive: Burrows kills Lucy, the Yellow Man shoots Burrows 
and then goes home to kill himself with a knife. A reference to the latest casualty 
figures from the Western Front suggests that the whole world might have battled 
itself to a halt. 


While maintaining that it was natural for women to admire fighters, John L. 
Sullivan was adamant that fights themselves should be seen only by men. The 
next generation was not so fastidious. Women made up a substantial part of 
the audience at the premiere of Rector's movie in 1897. 14 ° Miriam Hansen 
argues that this film, 'the cinematic mediation' of the prize-fight, as she calls it, 
opened up a previously forbidden spectacle to a large number of women who 
relished the sight of a little male flesh. 141 Indeed it seems that Corbett 'calculat- 
edly played on his awareness of his "ladies' man" image' by dressing for his fight 
films in trunks that prominently display his bottom, 'not often found on other 
fighters' and rather similar to those worn by Billy Smith in Eakins's Salutat. But 
'the Adonis of the Fistic arena', who also had a huge following as a stage actor, 
was clearly an exception. Dan Streible notes that 'subsequent fight films, even 
those showing Jim Corbett, never again attracted female patrons in significant 
numbers'. 142 

Even before the cinematic mediation of 1897, it was not unheard of for women 
to attend fights and to be seen to express an interest in prize-fighters. And again 
novelty was largely the point. In 1889, Nellie Bly, feature writer for the New York 
World, interviewed John L. Sullivan as he prepared for his fight with Jake Kilrain. 
Bly begins by announcing that she 'was surprised' by her visit, and the article goes 
on to explain why. She arrives at the house, which is 'in the prettiest part of town' 
and 'one would never imagine from the surroundings that a prize-fighter was 
being trained there'. When Sullivan enters the room, she finds him 'half-bashful', 


'very boyish' and 'not ungraceful'. Next she admires his 'straight and shapely' 
fingers, and finds 'the closely trimmed nails ... a lovely oval and pink'. Finally, 
they eat breakfast, and 'the daintiness of everything' from 'the white table linen 
and beautiful dishes, down to the large bunch of fragrant lilacs and another of 
beautifully shaped and coloured wild flowers, separated by a slipper filled with 
velvety pansies - was all entirely foreign to any idea I had ever conceived of prize- 
fighters and their surroundings'. 143 But while some women may have been 
attracted to prize-fighting by reassurances of clean nails and dainty dishes, others, 
it seems, went because they wanted to see blood and half-naked men (or at least 
that is what male readers liked to think). Steible points out that 'the figure of the 
lone, disguised woman at ringside became a recurring one in tabloid stories of 
the 1890s'; the San Francisco Examiner, for example, sent Annie Laurie (touted as 
'the first woman to report a prize fight') who watched 'from behind a curtained 
booth' and reported back that 'men have a world into which women cannot 
enter'. 144 This was not strictly true. In Carson City in 1897, a special section was 
designated for women spectators, and Rose Fitzsimmons acted as one of her hus- 
band's seconds. 'As the battle went on,' reported the Chicago Tribune, 'she became 
more and more demonstrative, sometimes breaking out with exclamations which 
bordered on the profane.' 145 From the ring itself, meanwhile, James Corbett not- 
iced in the crowd, 'a big, blonde, and very excited woman, her hair loose, hat 
jammed down over one ear, the blood from Fitz spattering her own face, and she, 
meanwhile, yelling at me things that were not at all flattering either to my skill as 
a fighter or my conduct as a gentleman'. 146 In 1905 the San Francisco Examiner 
reported the attendance of 'a few misplaced women' at the Nelson-Britt fight. A 
few of them looked like decent women, but the most gave token of being jaded, 
jades in search of some new torment for the sagging nerves' (illus. 69). 147 

These stories largely appealed to men who enjoying being a little shocked 
at the prospect of an occasional narrowing of the gap between manly boxing 
and their ideas of femininity. There is nothing like an exception to prove the 
rule. But some men - fight promoters and film-makers - actively encouraged the 
presence of women spectators, believing that their attendance would confer 
respectability on movie-going and provide a strong argument in favour of the 
legalization of prize-fighting. Streible notes that fight film advertisements often 
included 'such exaggerated inducements as "witnessed by hundreds of 
ladies'". 148 In 1915, the Broadway Sporting Club advertised that women would 
be charged a reduced rate of 50 cents to attend the next fight. Over 1,000 men 
showed up, but only one woman. The club then offered triple trading stamps as 
an inducement to 'flee pink tea and sewing circles'. 149 Two women came. 

It has become commonplace to suggest that when a male writer or artist 
depicts a woman looking at a man, the female point of view is really a mask for 
the male artist's own, usually erotic, interest. This is undoubtedly true in some 
cases, but there are other reasons (perhaps even conflicting reasons) why a man 
might explore a female point of view. We should not, for example, rule out the 
possibility of vanity. As the influence of Darwinian ideas spread, men (and later 


6 9 

George Bellows, 
Preliminaries to the 
Big Bout, 1916. 

1 ^^v^^fedfl^^jnE jp ^ Tift 

VH ^ 

1- V 

* • ( V-i 

women) also became interested in boxing as a subject matter within which to ex- 
plore the mechanisms of sexual selection, the 'struggle between the males for 
possession of the females'. 150 

Cashel Byron's Profession tells the story of the eponymous hero's romance 
with an independent, aristocratic 'New Woman', Lydia Carew. At first the 
attraction is aesthetic. Lydia, who is described as having 'a taste for . . . the fine 
arts', first encounters the boxer while walking, appropriately with a copy of 
Faust, in the woods of her home: 

The trees seem never ending: she began to think she must possess a for- 
est as well as a park. At last she saw an opening. Hastening towards it, 
she came again into the sunlight, and stopped, dazzled by an appari- 
tion which she at first took to be a beautiful statue, but presently recog- 
nized, with a strange glow of delight, as a living man . . . the man was 
clad in a jersey and knee-breeches of white material, and his bare arms 
shone like those of a gladiator. His broad pectoral muscles, in their white 
covering, were like slabs of marble. Even his hair, short, crisp, and curly, 
seemed like burnished bronze in the evening light. 151 

When James Corbett played Cashel Byron in one of the early pirated stage ver- 
sions, Shaw noted that American ladies were seized with a desire to go on the 
stage and be Lydia Carew for two thrilling hours'. 152 In the novel, too, it does not 
take Lydia long to recognize that Cashel's value is more than sculptural. Not that 


anyone would 'dare to suspect her . . . of anything so vulgarly human as sexual in- 
terest in Cashel'. 'A utilitarian before everything', Lydia assesses his animal vital- 
ity as a necessary complement to her own intellectualism and 'fine breeding', 
and decides to marry him in order to produce healthy children. 'I believe in the 
doctrine of heredity; and as my body is frail and my mind morbidly active, I think 
my impulse towards a man strong in body and untroubled in mind a trust- 
worthy one.' He becomes, in other words, her stud. It is 'a plain proposition in 
eugenics', but it does not quite work. The boys turn out like her, and the girls 
like him, and she 'soon came to regard him as one of the children'. 153 

The female assessment of a potential mate was central to many of Jack Lon- 
don's fight scenes, and more often than not his emphasis is on male excitement 
in realizing that this is the case. While in Great Expectations, Pip had been app- 
alled at Estella's flushed checks, London's men like to see their women aroused 
by a good fight. Expecting 'to find a shocked and frightened maiden counte- 
nance', they are often pleasantly surprised by a 'flushed and deeply interested 
face'. In the midst of a fierce exchange of blows, Martin Eden finds time to watch 
Lizzie Connolly watching him. 'Usually the girls screamed when the fellows got 
to scrapping, but she was looking on with bated breath, leaning slightly for- 
ward, so keen was her interest, one hand pressed to her breast, her cheek flushed, 
and in her eyes a great and amazed admiration.' Martin was 'thrilling all over'. 154 

London's interest in the female perspective is most fully explored in The 
Game (1905), a novella which grew out of his local club fight reports for the Oak- 
land Herald; it remained one of his favourite works. 155 Chapter One begins with 
the protagonists Joe and Genevieve choosing a carpet. They are to be married 
the next day, but first Joe will fight one last time and he wants her to watch - 'I'll 
fight as never before with you lookin' at me'. Genevieve's response to this is am- 
biguous. On the one hand, she responds with appropriate feminine revulsion; 
on the other, 'the masculinity of the fighting male . . . [made] its inevitable 
appeal to her, a female, moulded by all heredity to seek out the strong man for 
mate'. Joe too experiences a conflict of desires: 

He saw only the antagonism between the concrete, flesh-and-blood 
Genevieve and the great, abstract, living Game. Each resented the 
other, each claimed him; he was torn with the strife, and yet drifted 
helpless on the current of their contention. 156 

Before any boxing has taken place, then, we see that the central fight of the story 
is to be between the values of the 'abstract' and 'the concrete'. Contrary to what 
we might expect, abstraction is allied with 'the Game' while romantic love con- 
cerns the physical. 

Chapter Two goes back to consider Joe and Genevieve's courtship, and to em- 
phasize the importance of what they see of each other in forming their relationship. 
As they walk in the park the eyes of passers-by are 'continually drawn to them,' and 
each observes the admiring glances the other attracts. 157 This emphasis on seeing 


and being seen sets the tone for the fight scene itself. As women were not allowed 
into the arena Genevieve disguises herself as a boy and watches the fight through 
a peephole in the wall. 158 As a boy, indeed wearing Joe's shoes, she is, for the first 
time in her life, unnoticed by the men in the hall, 'this haunt of men where women 
came not'. This, London suggests, is her first moment of liberation from what he 
calls 'the bounds laid down by that harshest of tyrants, the Mrs. Grundy of the 
working class'. 159 The next such moment comes when she sees Joe's 'beautiful 
nakedness'. She feels guilty 'in beholding what she knew must be sinful to behold', 
but London informs us that 'the pagan in her, original sin, and all nature urged her 
on'. The terms in which Genevieve perceives Joe are, however, far from straight- 
forwardly erotic. Rather, her appreciation curiously shifts between the religious 
and the aesthetic, and much of it is feminizing. Joe is 'godlike', and she feels 'sac- 
rilege' in looking at him, but his face is also like a cameo', a thing of 'Dresden 
china', and London tells us that 'her chromo-trained aesthetic sense exceeded its 
education'. Joe's delicacy, fragility, smoothness and fairness are also continually 
emphasized. His opponent, on the other hand, is the classic 'beast with a streak 
for a forehead', 'a thing savage, primordial, ferocious'. 160 Looking connects the 
concreteness of romantic love to the fight's abstraction. 

During the central fight scenes, London seems to forget that we are seeing 
the fight from Genevieve's perspective, and there are several pages of detailed 
blow-by-blow description. Moreover, when Genevieve's perspective does return 
it seems confused, as if London was not really sure what do with it. On the one 
hand, he describes her attraction to what he calls the pagan values of pain, sex 
and death: 'She, too, was out of herself; softness and tenderness had vanished; 
she exulted in each crushing blow her lover delivered'. Yet, only moments later, 
her responses seem quite distinct from those of the crowd; she feels sick, faint, 
both 'overwrought with horror at what she had seen and was seeing' and baffled 
at the whole process. The fight in the ring ends when Joe slips and is caught on 
the chin with a lucky punch. Chance seems initially to be working for Genevieve, 
for believing that 'the Game had played him false', she concludes that 'he was 
more surely hers'. When she realizes that he is dead, however, it is with the 
acknowledgment that she had already lost him to 'the awful facts of this Game 
she did not understand'. 161 The Game is finally ambiguous about the status of 
both the boxer's body (it is a source not simply of violence, but of economic 
power, and self-expression) and the spectator's interpretation of the body (bio- 
logically, erotically, religiously and aesthetically). It is not only Joe's death that 
makes the conclusion bleak. He was also gambling on his ability to communi- 
cate the meaning of the Game to Genevieve, and that gamble failed as well. 
Women might look but they do not really understand men; London, however, 
understands that female lack of understanding. 162 

While Genevieve in The Game and Lydia in Cashel Byron 's Profession achieve 
a certain power simply by watching men fight, other works of the period (again 
usually by men) imagine female power more directly as the women themselves 
don gloves (illus. 70). William H. Bishop's 1895 novel, The Garden of Eden, usa, 



Women boxers, 

c. 1911. 

for example, presents a Utopia of sexual and economic equality in which cook- 
ing and housework are done by centralized machinery. This was perhaps the 
first novel to discuss rape as a social problem and certainly the first to suggest, 
as a possible form of resistance, boxing. 163 In the world outside Utopia, Bishop 
argues, 'the power of self-defense or of indignant protest is more necessary to 
women than to men'. In the Garden of Eden, however, women box 'more in 
bravado of conventional prejudices than anything else'. 164 

Although Bishop's is not the only work in which a feminist agenda is pres- 
ent, many references to women boxing in this period seem to involve little more 
than a return to the scantily clad heroines of Fielding's day. In 1880 the Police 
Gazette announced that a Miss Libbie Ross was 'champion female boxer of 
America', and in 1884, Hattie Stewart was declared world female champion, but 
no one seemed to take these titles very seriously. More popular were stories in 
which women (ignoring Darwin) fought over men and against 'mashers', usu- 
ally 'according to pugilistic rules' (illus. 71). l65 Athletic new women also featured 
in the new visual technologies, where great attention was paid to their costumes 
and what they revealed. A form of photography that was very popular between 
the 1850s and 1930s was stereoscopy. When two almost identical photographs, 
placed side by side, were seen though a stereoscope, a sense of depth and solid- 
ity was created. The technique was most often used to view images of land- 
scape and women in their underwear. No. 95 in a late nineteenth-century 
'Beauty Series' featured a Hallowe'en party boxing match entitled 'England's 
Advantage' (illus. 72). We cannot see either of the girl's faces, but that is hardly 
the point. The American 'beauty' has her opponent's glove in her face, and we 



'The Girls Biffed 
Each Other', from 
Police Gazette (1890). 


Stereoscopic photo 
of a Hallowe'en 
party boxing 
match, 'England's 








get a fine view (especially through a stereoscope) of the English girl's bloomers. 
Thomas Edison's 1898 film, Comedy Set-To was one of many early films in which 
women box for laughs. Starring the Police Gazette 'Champion Lady Bag Puncher', 
Belle Gordon, against Billy Curtis, it was, according to one magazine, 'refined, 
scientific, and a genuine comedy'. 'Belle Gordon is as frisky a little lady as ever 
donned a boxing outfit, and her abbreviated skirt, short sleeves and low necked 
waist make a very jaunty costume.' 166 

Women's arm muscles had suddenly become a new erogenous zone. The 
ethereal hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans's A Rebours (1884) falls briefly in love with 
a female acrobat, 'an American girl', largely because of her 'muscles of steel and 
arms of iron', while Everard in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) is very 
impressed by Rhoda Nunn's 'strong wrists, with exquisite vein-tracings on the 
pure white'. 167 In 1897 Frank Norris interviewed Alcide Capitaine, hailed as 'the 
female Sandow'. The resulting essay begins with sound feminist intentions. 
Norris addresses male readers who might be tempted to call her 'a "little 
woman" . . . and . . . might even . . . assume the certain condescension of man- 
ner that men - some men - display when talking to the "weaker" sex.' Such 
condescension would immediately vanish, however, when attempting to grasp 
her upper arm 'at first with one hand, then, failing in this, with two ... A man 
must have large hands to do the thing, for the bicep measurement is fifteen and 
a half inches.' Norris, we now realize, is not primarily interested in Capitaine 
as a living refutation of sexism or a feminist role model. It is the fact that her 
body is so different when 'at ease' and when 'muscled up' that excites him so 
much. Muscles relaxed, she is a 'quiet, retiring sort of little body'; a little flexing, 
however, and 'Tom Sharkey himself would be proud of that arm.' 'Really it took 
one's breath away.' While many New Women cultivated athleticism as an alter- 
native to Victorian restrictions on their bodies and behaviour, the fantasies of 
their often rather prurient supporters rested on the conjunction, or rather 
disjunction, of the new and the old, the 'frame of a pugilist in the person of a 
girl not yet out of her teens'. 

Although descriptions such as this carry more than a touch of the freak 
show, they also represent a broader cultural tendency to define both male and 
female sexuality (often referred to as biological health or fitness) in masculine 
terms. Biceps, rather than breasts or hips, were considered indicators of fitness 
for both men and women. When Norris compares Capitaine to Tom Sharkey he 
is not saying that he would prefer to sleep with Sharkey (even vicariously). In 
social and psychological terms, Capitaine remains womanly, but (by being a 
little bit manly around the arms) she also reveals herself to be sexually active and 
biologically fit. 

Early on in Jack London's first novel, A Daughter of the Snows (1902), Frona 
Welse offers her arm to an old family friend. ""Tis muscle," he admitted, passing 
his hand admiringly over the swelling bunch; "just as though ye'd een workin' 
hard for yer livin"". 



Jack and Charmian 

London boxing 


'Oh, I can swing clubs, and box, and fence,' she cried, successively strik- 
ing the typical postures; 'and swim, and make high dives, chin a bar 
twenty times, and - walk on my hands. There!' 169 

Like Genevieve, Frona is engaged in the task of sexual selection, but unlike 
Genevieve, she is highly educated in Social Darwinian terminology and so can 
recognize quite precisely what she is feeling. The novel is structured around 
Frona's choice between two suitors, the rather brutish Gregory St Vincent, and 
Vance Corliss, whose 'muscular development was more qualitative than quanti- 
tative', and whom she eventually picks. Fortunately, Vance likes her too, and for 
very similar reasons - 'the strength of her slenderness' and 'the joy of life', which 
'romped through her blood, abstemiously filling out and rounding off each 
shapely muscle .. . Especially he liked the swell of her forearm, which rose firm and 
strong and tantalizing'. 170 Genevieve could only look at Joe uncomprehendingly; 
Frona and Vance look at each other and rationally assess what they see. Theirs is 
to be a marriage of biological equals, 'mate man' and 'mate woman' boxing to- 
gether, just as London did with his second wife, Charmian (illus. 73). 

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, writers lost interest in the distinc- 
tive sub-culture and language of boxing; instead, the sport became a focus for 
many competing, and often oddly intermingling, discourses. In their rhetorical 
battles, often with each other, eugenics, professionalism, strenuousness, realism 
and feminism all drew upon pugilism to make their points. Missing from this 
list, and this chapter, however, are two fiercely debated topics in early twentieth- 
century America: nation, and race. It is these that the next chapter will consider. 



The Boxing Boys, 
wall-painting from 
Akrotiri, Thera, 17th 
to 16th century bc. 

Female Combatants 



The Female Combatants, Or Who Shall, 1776, etching. 


Humphreys vs Mendozajug, 1788. 

The Prussian prize-fighter and his allies attempting to tame imperial Kate, or, the state of the European bruisers, Cartoon 
shows Catherine 11 and Frederick William 11 as pugilists, stripped to the waist with fists raised. Published by William 
Dent, 14 February 1791. 


The Close of the Battle or the Champion Triumphant, 1811. 

Robert and George Cruikshank, 'Cribb's Parlour: Tom introducing Jerry and Logic to the Champion of England', coloured 
aquatint illustration from Pierce Egan, Life in London (1821). 


Charles Turner after T. Blake, The Interior of the Fives Court, with Randall and Turner Sparring, 1825. 

The Zoopraxiscope, 
Athletes Boxing, 
by Eadweard 
Muybridge, c. 1893. 

'Gown! Gown! Town! 
Town! or, The Battle 
of Peas Hill', illustra- 
tion from Gradus ad 
Cantahrigiam (1824). 


Thomas Eakins, Between Rounds, 1898-9. 

\ttiz. tn£ mtt i wu?. t 
Twey "ctitMA/r ftcen mm. 

i£n .. * it *i . 


Cover of T/?f Coming Champion, 
1910, Blackface Minstrel Show, 
script for a sketch. 


'If I Wuz the Man I Wuz, They 
Wouldn't Need Him', postcard, 
New York, 1912. 

I'rn'r IS C«TJ 




The Coming 


WLUIffiLft. - IWllMfti 

I ^1 -wlMTCR St UdSTCitiuSi 


Archibald J. Motley Jr, The Plotters, 1933. 

OltOih IS. ittL 





William Low, 'The Sympathetic Spectator', Punch, 15 October 1924. 


Cover of The Champion annual, 1953. 


Cover of The Fight magazine, 13 February 1931. 


Karl Arnold, Women Boxers, Berlin, from Simplicissimus, August 1923. 

20 ham 








HiH'Ht ihirnDin 

COflTRE ' ^B 





Poster advertising Panama Al Brown at the Palais des Sports, Brussels, 1938. 


Aligi Sassu, 

Pugilatori, 1929. 


Max Pechstein, Boxer in the Ring, postcard to Erich Heckel, 4 November 1910. 


The Stenberg Brothers, poster for The Boxer's Bride, 1926. 


Fresh Hopes 

'We are all Anglo-Saxons enough to enjoy the sight of a fight,' Frank Norris 
declared in 1903, before, unblushingly, going on to praise the talents of a New 
Zealander of Cornish descent, Bob Fitzsimmons. 1 A rather loose approach to 
matters of race, ethnicity and nationality had long been a feature in boxing, 
even when those affiliations were supposedly the point. Such leniency allowed 
a former American slave, Tom Molineaux, to be co-opted into the English battle 
against Napoleon in 1812, the Irish-born and California-bred John Heenan to 
be feted as a symbol of both American and Irish anti-British sentiment in i860, 
and Joe Louis to become a symbol of Jim Crow America's fight against foreign 
fascism in 1938. 

The rapid development of sports in the United States in the late nineteenth 
and early twentieth century was closely linked to questions of national identity 
- what it meant to be an American, and more critically for the new immigrants, 
what was needed to become one. 2 'To be an American, dress like an American, 
look like an American, and even, if only in fantasy, talk like an American' was 
the goal of the young immigrant. 3 Sports such as boxing provided a readily avail- 
able subject-matter, and vocabulary, for recognizably American talk. 

In Abraham Cahan's 1896 novella, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, Yekl 
Podkovnik's metamorphosis into Jake, 'an American feller, a Yankee', is repre- 
sented by his enthusiasm for dance halls and boxing. The story opens with Jake 
giving his fellow Lower East Side sweatshop workers a detailed account of the 
exploits of Sullivan, Corbett and others, proudly displaying his grasp of the cor- 
rect idiom: 

'Say, Dzake,' the presser broke in, 'John Sullivan is tzampion no longer, 
is he? 

'Oh no! Not always is it holiday!' Jake responded, with what he con- 
sidered a Yankee jerk of his head. 'Why don't you know? Jimmie Cor- 
bett leaked him, and Jimmie leaked Cholly Meetchel, too. You can betch 
you' bootsh! Johnnie could not leak Chollie, becaush he is a big bluffer, 
Chollie is,' he pursued, his clean-shaven florid face beaming with enthu- 


siasm for his subject, and with pride in the diminutive proper nouns he 
flaunted. 'But Jimmie pundished him. Oh, didn't he knock him out off 
shightl He came near making a meat-ball of him' -with a chuckle. 'He 
tzettled him in three roynds. I knew a feller who had seen the fight.' 
'What is a rawnd, Dzake?' the presser inquired. 4 

Reading this slang-laden fight description (which then goes on into 'a minute ex- 
position of "right-handers", "left-handers", "sending to sleep", "first blood", and 
other commodities of the fistic business') we might almost be back in Regency 
England. But there are important differences. The first thing to notice is a foot- 
note that tells us that 'English words incorporated in the Yiddish of the charac- 
ters of this narrative are given in italics'. Fluent standard English, in other words, 
represents fluent standard Yiddish. The English that appears in italics is the 
same kind of English that Pierce Egan italicized in the 1800s, and like Egan, Jake 
is putting on a costume when he uses 'diminutive proper nouns' and talks of 
'tzampions' and 'roynds'. Sabinne Haenni suggests that this speech could 'qual- 
ify for the vaudeville stage'. 5 But Jake's language is further complicated by the 
fact that he has recently moved to New York from Boston, and so even his Yid- 
dish is different from that of his co-workers and 'his r's could do credit to the 
thickest Irish brogue'. In Boston, Jake says, 'every Jew speaks English like a 
stream', but what kind of English is it that flows so freely? It is hardly standard- 
ized - one man says 'roynd'; another 'rawnd '. Cahan describes the English his 
characters speak as 'mutilated' and 'gibberish'. 6 

When his friends dismiss boxing as mere fighting, Jake evokes its rules. One 
of the men, a scholar called Bernstein, makes a joke: 'America is an educated 
country, so they won't even break each other's bones without grammar. They 
tear each other's sides according to "right and left", you know.' Cahan explains 
that 'this was a thrust at Jake's right-handers and left-handers, which had inter- 
fered with Jake's reading', and adds, in a footnote, that 'right and left' is 'a term 
relating to the Hebrew equivalent of the letter s, whose pronunciation depends 
on the right or left position of a mark over it'. The rules of Hebrew are thus jux- 
taposed with those of American boxing. Jake may 'speak quicker' than his 
friends, his American slang flowing like a stream', but he is illiterate; Bernstein 
has little standard English and less slang, but he is a Hebrew scholar. 7 

Cahan himself sat somewhere between his two characters. 8 Before Yekl, 
Cahan had published several stories in Yiddish and had enthusiastically wel- 
comed the American publication of stories by I. L. Peretz and Shalom Aleichem. 
But Yiddish was generally regarded by Jewish intellectuals as non-literary. The 
languages of the literature were Hebrew, Russian, Polish, German, and, if a broad 
American audience was to be reached, English. 9 A Tale of the Ghetto' written 
specifically for those outside the ghetto, Yekl followed in the tradition of what 
was then known as local color' fiction and positioned its characters and their 
environment with anthropological exactness. The narrator is a key figure in this 
process, our tour guide around the ghetto, and our translator of its speech. His 


English is self-consciously literary and genteel. The opening paragraph, for exam- 
ple, tells us that the boss was on Broadway 'where he had betaken himself two or 
three hours before', and that 'the little sweltering assemblage . . . beguiled their 
suspense variously'. Jules Chametzsky maintains that the extreme contrast 
between this language and that of Cahan's characters entails 'an arch and conde- 
scending attitude' towards them. 'Their fractured English is comic when it is not 
grotesque.' 10 But something more interesting seems to be going on. While the 
English the characters speak is, in Cahan's word, 'mutilated', as we have seen, 
their Yiddish (written as English) is fluent and in many ways, much more expres- 
sive than the narrator's English. Yiddish, Cahan notes, is 'omnivorous'. Several 
jokes in the text emerge from phrases or words that sound similar in Yiddish 
and English (left and right' above; 'dinner' in Yiddish is 'thinner' in English). 
The language of the ghetto, like the ghetto itself, remains a complicated, and not 
wholly translatable, 'hodgepodge'. English may be the official language of the 
story but within its embrace are found several varieties of Yiddish (one of which 
is spoken with an Irish lilt), Russian and Hebrew (when Jake takes a Hebrew 
letter to be translated, Cahan jokes that it 'was Greek to Jake'). 11 

For Jake, however, following boxing is not only about finding an excuse to 
show off his new mastery of American colloquialisms. It is also a 'trying on of 
roles ... [a] delight in assuming new identities'; in particular new versions of 
masculinity. 12 Becoming an American man was not a matter of simply gaining 
something additional (a style on top); it also meant giving something up. The 
shifting balance between gains and losses is what the story is all about, and at 
times the debate slips into verbal sparring. When one of Jake's co-workers dis- 
misses the fight talk, Jake is immediately 'on the defensive'. 

'Don't you like it? I do,' Jake declared tartly. 'Once I live in America,' he 
pursued, on the defensive, 'I want to know that I live in America. Dot'sh 
a kin' a man I ami One must notbe a greenhorn. Here a Jew is as good as 
a Gentile. How, then, would you have it? The way it is in Russia, where 
a Jew is afraid to stand within four ells of a Christian?' 13 

In the 1890s Zionists in Germany, England and the Unites States had begun 
to speak of a modern muscular Judaism, and often evoked the name of the early 
nineteenth-century Jewish boxers, Daniel Mendoza and Dutch Sam. 14 In the 
'Proem' to The Children of the Ghetto (1914), Israel Zangwill told the story of an 
old peddler called Sleepy Sol who is defended from the brutality of a local 
hostler by his son-in-law, who turns out to be Dutch Sam. 'The young Jew 
paralysed him by putting his left hand negligently into his pocket. With his 
remaining hand he closed the hostler's right eye, and sent the flesh about it into 
mourning.' Zangwill included the story to make the point that 'Judaea has always 
a cosmos in little, and its prize-fighters and scientists, its philosophers and 
"fences" [etc] . . . have always been in the first rank.' 15 When Yekl defends his 
interest in prize-fighting by evoking Russian persecution of Jews, he seems to be 


aligning himself with muscular Judaism. To his friends, and indeed to most 
Orthodox Russian and Polish immigrants at this time, however, the idea of the 
tough Jew (the muskeljuden) was not merely an anathema but a contradiction in 
terms, and its adoption signalled the beginning of the end of traditional values. 16 
In The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902), Hutchins Hapgood observed that many of those 
who talked of the 'crimes of which they read in the newspapers, of prize-fights, 
of budding business propositions . . . gradually quit going to synagogue, give up 
heder promptly when they are thirteen years old, avoid the Yiddish theatres, 
seek the up-town places of amusement, dress in the latest American fashion, 
and have a keen eye for the right thing in neckties'. 17 

When Bernstein asks Yekl, 'Are there no other Christians than fighters in 
America?' he might have added, are no other Americans than Irish-Americans? 
But neither man seems aware that Yekl's American icons were both first-genera- 
tion Irish immigrants: Sullivan's parents came from Tralee and Athlone, Corbett's 
from Galway. 18 If you wanted to become an American in late nineteenth-century 
Boston it made sense to adopt an Irish brogue and talk about Sullivan and 
Corbett. At the time, Irishness was almost synonymous with pugnacity, and pug- 
nacity was almost synonymous with Americanness; ergo the Irish were the 'real' 
Americans, the immigrants who best performed the accepted version of national 
identity. 19 Assimilation simply meant adopting the ways of the previous genera- 
tion of immigrants. 

The complexities of ethnic identification form the basis of 0. Henry's 1906 
story, 'The Coming-out of Maggie', in which an Irish girl sneaks her Italian 
boyfriend Tony Spinelli into the Clover Leaf Social Club under the name of Terry 
O'Sullivan. 'Terry' falls out with the leader of the Give and Take Athletic Asso- 
ciation, Dempsey Donovan, who challenges him to a fight. Faced with Donovan, 
'dancing, light-footed, with the wary grace of a modern pugilist', Terry reverts 
to his essential Tony-ness and, with 'a murderous look in his dark eyes', pulls a 
stiletto from his jacket. Maggie apologizes for bringing a 'Guinea' into the club 
and Donovan walks her home. 20 Tony Spinelli was not the only immigrant to 
adopt an Irish name; many turn-of-the-century Italian and Jewish fighters fol- 
lowed suit. Mushy Callahan was Jewish; Hugo Kelly was Italian. 21 In James 
T. Farrell's 1932 novel Young Lonigan, set in 1916, Old Man O'Brien remembers 
the good old days, 'when most of them [the boxers] were real Irish, lads who'd 
bless themselves before they fought: they weren't fake Irish like most of the 
present-day dagoes and wops and sheenies who took Hibernian names'. 
Meanwhile Davey Cohen, a Jewish boy, sees 'all the Irish race personified in the 
face of Studs Lonigan' and imagines himself 'punching that face, cutting it, 
bloodying the nose, blackening the eyes, mashing it'. 22 

Soon Jews were participating in, as well as watching and imagining, such 
fights. Along with Sullivan and Corbett, Yekl might have celebrated the San 
Francisco Jewish boxer, Joe Choynski, who fought Corbett, Fitzsimmons, 
Sharkey and Jack Johnson and whose father published Public Opinion, a muck- 
raking newspaper that exposed anti-Semitism. 23 Corbett recalls that their 1889 


fight was partly promoted as 'Jew versus Gentile'. 24 In 1905, the Police Gazette 
noted that a generation of 'peaceable and inoffensive' Russian Jewish immi- 
grants had been succeeded by 'turbulent young men from whose ranks have 
been graduated a number of professional pugilists and boxers'. 25 The first Jew- 
ish-American champions were bantamweight Harry Harris, who won his crown 
in 1901, and featherweight Abe Attell, who held the title from 1904 to 1912. In 
New York's Lower East Side, the first popular Jewish fighter was Leach Cross 
(Louis Wallach) who, from 1906 to 1915, fought as 'The Fighting Dentist', while 
London's East End produced 1915 world welterweight champion Ted 'Kid' Lewis 
(Gershon Mendeloff ), and lightweight and junior welterweight champion Jackie 
'Kid' Berg (Judah Bergman), the 'Whitechapel Windmill', who famously hung 
his tzitzis on the ringpost at the start of each fight. 26 In 1920 the Italian Samuel 
Mandella began fighting under the Jewish-sounding name of Sammy Mandell, 
and by the early 1930s, Jews dominated boxing on both sides of the Atlantic, 
not simply as fighters and fans, but as promoters, trainers, managers, referees, 
journalists and sporting goods manufacturers. 

It wasn't long before the story of the Jewish boy who broke his father's heart 
by becoming a boxer became a bit of a cliche. His People, a 1925 film about Jewish 
life on the Lower East Side, tells the story of Sammy and Morris Cominsky, both 
of whom stray from the ways of their Orthodox parents. Morris becomes a lawyer 
and Sammy a prize-fighter. As the father expels Sammy from the house, his words 
are presented in an inter-title: 

A box-fyteh!? So that's what you've become? For this we came to Amer- 
ica? So that you should become a box-fyteh? Better you should be a 
gangster or even a murderer. The shame of it. A box-fyteh! 27 

In Nineteen Nineteen (1932), John Dos Passos introduced the character of Benny 
Compton: 'The old people were Jews but at school Benny always said he no he 
wasn't a Jew he was an American'. The Compton children assimilate in differ- 
ent ways. Ben becomes a political activist, his sister Gladys a secretary, and their 
brother, Izzy 'palled around with an Irishman who was going to get him into 
the ring.' Although it is Benny and Gladys who eventually come to bad ends, it 
is Izzy's career choice that most upsets his parents. 'Momma cried and Pop for- 
bade any of the kids to mention his name'. 28 

Boxing promoters capitalized on ethnic animosities and often matched a Jew- 
ish fighter against an Irishman or an Italian against either (illus. 74). Prompted by 
the gift of The Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame, Herman Roth recalled many of the early 
Jewish champions (and in particular those from New Jersey) in a 1988 conversa- 
tion with his son Philip, whom he had taken as a child to the Thursday night fights 
at Newark's Laurel Garden. 'They fought two battles', Herman said. 

They fought because they were fighters, and they fought because they 
were Jews. They'd put two guys in the ring, an Italian and a Jew, and 



Bt&tr&friarji Road — SJE. 

Sunday- Oct. Z 7™ 1^30 

Kliniiii.iting CHdlHplnhsHp 


/■jfttmti 'imlnvi- Rounds 






- 4 


Reserved Seals.... S'9li) E l'+'0 

Unreserved.... I'lO to 4'6 



Poster advertising 


vs. Harry Mason, 


London, 1930. 

Irishman and a Jew, and they fought like they meant it, they fought to 
hurt. There was always a certain amount of hatred in it. Trying to show 
who was superior. 29 

As a teenager, Philip Roth 'could recite the names and weights of all the cham- 
pions and contenders', and was particularly keen on Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, 
light heavyweight champion from 1932 to 1934. 'Jewish boxers and boxing 
aficionados,' he later noted, were a 'strange deviation from the norm' of Jewish 
culture and 'interesting largely for that reason'. 

In the world whose values first formed me, unrestrained physical 
violence was considered contemptible everywhere else. I could no more 
smash a nose with a fist than fire a pistol into someone's heart. And 
what imposed this restraint, if not on Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, then 
on me, was my being Jewish. In my scheme of things, Slapsie Maxie 
was a more miraculous Jewish phenomena by far than Dr. Albert 
Einstein. 30 

Although less strikingly named than Slapsie Maxie, the most famous Jewish 
boxer of the early twentieth century was undoubtedly Benny Leonard; Farrell's 
Davey Cohen describes him as 'one smart hebe that could beat the Irish at their 
own game' (illus. 75). 31 Benny's real surname was Leiner, but he fought under 
the name of Leonard, supposedly in case his mother read about his fights in the 


Jewish Daily Forward. One day, returning home with 
a black eye, he was unable to conceal the truth 
from parents: 

My mother looked at my black eye and 
wept. My father, who had to work all week 
for $20, said, 'All right Benny, keep on 
fighting. It's worth getting a black eye for 
$20; I am getting verschwartzt [black- 
ened] for $20 a week. 32 

Leonard became world lightweight champion in 

1917 and retired undefeated in 1925. 33 Like many 

boxers, he then dabbled in vaudeville, including a 

1921 appearance in one of the Marx Brothers' most 

successful stage shows, a fast-paced revue called 

On the Mezzanine Floor. The brothers were keen 

fight fans, and Harpo had known Leonard for 

some time (illus. 76). 34 Leonard was in love with 

Hattie Darling, the dancing violinist star of the 

show, and, as Groucho recalled, 'she was able to 

talk him into putting money into our act'. 'A few 

times he joined the act and would come on stage, 

and the four of us would try to box with him. The 

audience loved that. They loved to see a world champion kidding around on 

stage.' 35 After the Wall Street crash of 1929, Leonard briefly returned to boxing; 

'The Great Bennah' died, while refereeing a fight, in 1947. 

In 1980, Budd Schulberg recalled Leonard's importance to the children of 
Jewish immigrants; children who had 'tasted the fists and felt the shoe-leather 
of righteous Irish and Italian Christian children'. Benny Leonard was their 
'superhero'. Schulberg, who was born in 1914, was luckier than most because 
his father, a Hollywood mogul, knew Leonard personally. 


Benny Leonard, 
cigarette card 
given away with 
The Champion, 
3 June 1922. 

To see him climb in the ring sporting the six-pointed Jewish star on his 
fighting trunks was to anticipate sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, 
split lips, and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys who had run 
the neighbourhood gauntlet. 36 

'More than any other group of athletes', Jewish boxers provided a 'vivid coun- 
terpoint to popular anti-Semitic stereotypes'. 37 

But the stereotypes were remarkably persistent. 'No Business' (1915), by 
Charles E. Van Loan, is the story of a boxer called Isidore Mandelbaum. Two 
Irish fight fans discuss his career, and while conceding that he can 'hit with 
both hands - hit hard too', they lament his lack of 'the heart and the stomach'. 


Mandelbaum, they conclude, is 'a gladiator for revenue only'. 'The only part 
of the fight game that he likes is the split-up in the box office . . . He'll never 
fight for the pure love of fightin', understand me? Put an Irish heart in him 
... an' you'd have a champion - no less'. The men construct an elaborate set-up 
to encourage Mandelbaum to be a little more 'game' in the ring. It works and 
they're happy, but we never learn what Mandelbaum thought. 38 

Perhaps the most famous portrait from this period of a Jew who boxes is 
Robert Cohn in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926). 39 Cohn is not just 
any Jew, fresh off the boat, but 'a member, through his father, of one of the rich- 
est Jewish families in New York, and through his mother, one of the oldest'. He 
has many privileges that the novel's narrator, Jake Barnes, lacks. The first, a Prince- 
ton education, is mentioned in the novel's opening sentence: 'Robert Cohn was 
once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.' 'Do not think that I am very 
much impressed by that as a boxing title', Jake quickly adds, 'but it meant a lot to 
Cohn.' The paragraph continues as a virtuoso exercise in deflation. We next learn 
that Cohn 'cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it', and then that 'he never 
fought except in the gym'. In other words, Cohn is no sportsman. Princeton may 
have given him a 'flattened nose', but after he left, no one remembered him or his 
title. 40 The insinuation is that Cohn boxed in order to remove the obvious mark 
of his Jewishness, hoping to assume in its place the flat-nosed pugilistic style that 
Jake feels is his own birthright. Throughout the novel, Jake goes to great lengths 
to demonstrate that it takes more than a little outmoded Ivy League undergradu- 
ate 'spirit' to turn a Jew into a proper sporting strenuous American. 41 

The problem with Cohn, as Jake sees it, is that his responses to life, literature 
and sport are not genuine - they are, like Yekl's speech, merely a costume that he 


The Marx Brothers 

with their fists 



dons. Cohn likes the idea of a mistress more than any actual mistress; the idea of 'a 
lady of title' more than Lady Brett Ashley; the idea of chivalrous battle more than 
a real fight. He thinks boxing is something that takes place in gyms, and worries that 
he'll be 'bored' at the corrida. His 'undergraduate quality' is constantly noted. At 34 
he still wears polo shirts and reads novels full of fights and handshakes, novels like 
W. H. Hudson's romantic potboiler, The Purple Land (1885), which Jake claims he 
took literally'. When he stands up 'ready to do battle for his lady love', Jake mocks 
the 'childish, drunken heroic of it'. In his first fight outside the gym, Cohn ends up 
taking on everybody he can, all in the same spirit and in his polo shirt. He first 
knocks down Mike, who is 'not a fighter', and Jake, 'the human punching-bag', who 
then obliges him by shaking hands. But things are different with the toreador, 
Romero, who 'kept getting up and getting knocked down again'. When Cohn tries 
to shake hands with him, Romero punches him in the face. Mike dismisses both 
'Jews and bullfighters' as 'those sorts of people'; Jake, however, knows that Brett's 
substitution of Romero for Robert, and himself, is a definite upgrade. 42 

Walter Benn Michaels remarks that 'Hemingway's obsessive commitment 
to distinguishing between Cohn and Jake only makes sense in the light of their 
being in some sense indistinguishable.' 43 For all their differences, Robert Cohn 
and Jake Barnes are both 'taken in hand' by Brett, 'manipulated' in a way that 
recalls the boxer dolls that Jake nearly trips over on the Boulevard des Capucines. 
There, a 'girl assistant' lackadaisically pulls the threads that make the dolls dance 
on stands, while she stands with 'folded hands', looking away'. 44 

'the peculiar gift of the white man' 

The narrator of Herman Melville's 1846 novel, Typee, is surprised to find that 
the inhabitants of the South Sea island on which he is marooned don't under- 
stand boxing: 'not one of the natives', he complains, 'had soul enough in him to 
stand up like a man, and allow me to hammer away at him': 

The noble art of self-defence appeared to be regarded by them as the pe- 
culiar gift of the white man; and I make little doubt but that they sup- 
posed armies of Europeans were drawn up provided with nothing else 
but bony fists and stout hearts, with which they set to in column, and 
pummelled one another at the word of command. 45 

Despite the success of early nineteenth-century black boxers such as Tom Mo- 
lineaux and Bill Richmond, by Melville's time it had become a commonplace 
that 'the noble art of self-defence' - an art no less - was 'the peculiar gift of the 
white man'. In 1908, this confidence would be shattered when a black American 
became heavyweight champion of the world and the country plunged into a 
feverish, and futile, search for a 'great white hope' with a sufficiently stout heart 
and bony fists to defeat him. After 1908, many whites played down 'art' and 
began to talk of nature. 


Although black Americans had boxed before the Civil War, it was really 
only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that they began to make any 
headway in the sport. This was partly to do with the development and profes- 
sionalization of sport in general, and partly to do with the growth of a significant 
black urban population. James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930) tells 
the story of the origins of black urban culture, and of the ways in which 'the 
Negro . . . effectively impressed himself upon the city and the country'. 'Within 
this period,' he noted, 'roughly speaking, the Negro in the North emerged and 
gained national notice in three great professional sports: horse-racing, baseball, 
and prize-fighting.' Johnson devotes most of his attention to boxing, the sport 
which, he maintained, had the advantage of depending (at least more than the 
others) on 'individual skill and stamina'. 46 

The growth of an urban black sporting and theatrical community was 
accompanied by the development of what Johnson calls a 'black Bohemia' of 
sporting and gambling clubs. The walls of a typical club 'were literally covered 
with photographs or lithographs of every colored man in America who had ever 
"done anything"'. 

There were pictures of Frederick Douglass and of Peter Jackson, of all 
the lesser lights of the prize-ring, of all the famous jockeys and the stage 
celebrities, down to the newest song and dance team ... It was, in short, 
a centre of coloured Bohemians and sports. 47 

From the myriad of photographs and lithographs that cover the club walls, John- 
son picks out two portraits - those of Frederick Douglass and Peter Jackson. 
Jackson was a great late nineteenth-century heavyweight (and I'll consider his 
career in a moment), but it is worth remembering that Frederick Douglass also 
had a reputation as a pugilist. 


Before the Civil War, slaves in Southern states were often set to fight for the 
entertainment of their masters, who made money gambling on the outcome. 
Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who became a prominent anti-slavery orator 
and author of the best-selling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an Amer- 
ican Slave (1845), noted with horror the way in which slave owners encouraged 
slaves to participate in boxing and wrestling matches, designed also to serve as 
'safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity'. As an 
alternative Sabbath activity, Douglass set up a school to teach his fellow slaves 
to read, but this had to be kept secret, 'for they had much rather see us engaged 
in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and 
accountable beings'. 48 For Douglass, reading, writing and speaking offered the 
ultimate resistance to slavery's dehumanization. Nevertheless, verbal self- 
expression is directly connected to violent, physical self-expression in the 


Narrative. A 'turning-point' in the book, and in Douglass's 'career as a slave', is 
a fight, in which, as a sixteen-year-old boy, he takes on the brutal 'nigger-breaker' 
Edward Covey. Covey has broken Douglass's spirit - 'the disposition to read de- 
parted . . . behold a man transformed into a brute' - and it is only by fighting 
that he can again become a man who reads. 

In some ways the shape of the book follows the form of a conversion narra- 
tive, and the depiction of the fight, which is dense in biblical allusion, refigures 
religious conversion. Covey is a 'professor of religion' - 'a pious soul', the Narrative 
ironically notes - but it is Douglass who is preaching a sermon. 49 In fighting Covey, 
Douglass becomes a combination of Daniel escaped from the Lions' Den, Jacob 
wrestling with the Angel, and the suffering Christ; the outcome of the fight is 
likened to 'a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery'. 50 Usually such a 
rebellion would have been rewarded with further whipping, but for reasons that 
Douglass does not fully convey, he remains unpunished. Neither man is really a 
loser here: Covey's 'unbounded reputation' as an overseer remained intact; Dou- 
glass gained the 'self-confidence' necessary to take the next steps in his progression 
towards freedom, and leadership. The conversion from bondage to freedom 
enacted here is not, therefore, actual - he would remain a slave for four more years 
- but psychological. Douglass's formulation, 'You have seen how a man was made 
a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man', indicates that 'slave' and 'man' 
are to be understood as opposing and contradictory concepts (as indeed, Dou- 
glass believed, were 'slave' and 'American'). The events leading up to the fight 
show Covey whipping Douglass, and by this stage of the Narrative, we realize that 
to accept such whippings is to be in some way feminine. 51 In resisting (and in turn 
feminizing) Covey - a fierce tiger before, a trembling leaf afterwards - Douglass 
says he has 'revived within me a sense of my own manhood'. Only when this psy- 
chological transformation has taken place can the truly liberating activities - read- 
ing, writing and running away- develop a proper momentum. 

It might be argued that this fight is very different from a boxing match. It 
did not have an audience, it was not undertaken for money or show; it was an 
authentic struggle. Yet in the context of the Narrative, as in all literary, or auto- 
biographical descriptions of fights, the scene takes on some characteristics of a 
performance. In addition, it is important to remember that the Narrative was 
written primarily for an abolitionist readership, and that Douglass was con- 
sciously fashioning an acceptable image of the male slave. This put him in a 
difficult position. On the one hand, as Richard Yarborough observes, blacks 
were viewed as 'unmanly and otherwise inferior because they were enslaved'; on 
the other hand, they were seen as 'beasts and otherwise inferior if they rebelled 
violently'. 52 In presenting his fight with Covey, Douglass treads a fine line 
between appropriate manliness and frightening bestiality. Douglass wants to 
present himself to his readers as manly and assertive, yet not as too manly or too 
assertive. 'I held him uneasy causing the blood to run where I touched him with 
the ends of my fingers,' he wrote; an awkward description that seems to reflect 
his own uneasiness about what he had done. 53 


The problematic nature of this encounter is made evident if the later revi- 
sions of the Narrative are considered. In 1855, by now famous, Douglass 
expanded and revised his account as My Bondage and My Freedom; in 1881, a final 
version, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published. In these two 
later versions, he is not merely relating his escape from slavery; he is recount- 
ing the exemplary story of his life as a self-made man, Benjamin Franklin style. 
The fight remains central to the story, but its depiction is very different. Covey 
is transformed into the stock villain of the melodramatic novel, the 'scoundrel' 
and 'cowardly tormentor' against whom he must reluctantly defend himself. 
Douglass ends by apologizing to readers who might find his narration of the 
'skirmish' as 'undignified' as the event itself. 54 This seems to be a move toward 
what David Leverentz calls 'genteel chumminess': 'at any rate,' wrote Douglass, 
7 was resolved to fight, and, what was better still, I was actually hard at it'. 55 Yet 
the very expansion of a single long paragraph to several pages of detailed 
description might be read as itself an act of politically motivated aggression. 

Douglass's political views had changed significantly since 1845. Then, he 
opposed the idea of violent slave resistance, which he believed would delay aboli- 
tion; instead he called for the peaceful conversion of slaveholders. After the in- 
troduction of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he became frustrated with the 
ineffectiveness of non-violent persuasion and began to speak out in favour of ac- 
tive, violent, slave resistance as both morally defensible and more likely to end 
slavery. 56 Douglass may also have thought it necessary to develop the fight scene 
as counter-propaganda to Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling 1852 novel, Uncle 
Tom 's Cabin, a work which certainly did not advocate slave rebellion. In a piv- 
otal scene, Uncle Tom capitulates, with Christian stoicism, to the whip of Simon 
Legree. 57 Dramatizations of the novel were popular well into the twentieth cen- 
tury, and, in one of the ironies of segregated America, many black boxers, some 
of whom, like Peter Jackson and Jack Johnson, had recently defeated white op- 
ponents, found ready employment playing the mild, emasculated Tom. 58 My 
Bondage uses every means possible, including italics and capitals, to emphasize 
both Douglass's manliness - 'I was nothing before; I was a man now' - and the 
role that the fight played in developing it - A man, without force, is without the 
essential dignity of humanity.' 59 

As a free man, Douglass retained his faith in pugilistic metaphor and ex- 
ample. In 1862 he made a speech to a largely black audience in which he com- 
plained that 'we are striking the guilty rebels with our soft white hand, when 
we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man'. 60 The following 
year, he intensified his call of 'Men of Color, To Arms', arguing that the 'imper- 
iled nation' must 'unchain against her foes her powerful black hand . . . Words 
are useful only as they stimulate blows . . . "Who would be free, must them- 
selves strike the blow."' 61 At the height of the war, in 1864, Douglass declared 
that the conflict had 'swept away' many 'delusions' about black men. 'One was 
. . . that the Negro would not fight; that he . . . was a perfect lamb, or an "Uncle 
Tom"; disposed to take off his coat whenever required, fold his hands, and be 


whipped by anybody who wanted to whip him'. The war, Douglass noted, 'has 
proved that there is a great deal of human nature in the Negro, and that he will 
fight, as Mr. Quincy, our President, said, in earlier days than these, "when there 
is a reasonable probability of his whipping anybody"'. 62 

I have discussed Douglass vs. Covey in some detail partly because of its own 
interest as a fight story, but also because of its continued importance for black 
American writers, artists and political leaders throughout the twentieth cen- 
tury. 63 After his death in 1897, Douglass was frequently presented as a model of 
'the New Negro Man', exemplary to some in his 'manly courage', and, to others, 
in his self-restraint and patience. 64 Paul Lawrence Dunbar's elegy, for example, 
celebrates him as 'no soft-tongued apologist' but a warrior: 'He died in action, 
with his armor on.' 65 A rather less forceful figure emerges in Booker T. Washing- 
ton's 1906 biography, in which he both sought to establish himself as Douglass's 
rightful heir and to distance himself from his defiant tone. That Washington 
had some trouble with the Covey fight is indicated by the brevity of his account 
of it, and by his frequent use of words such as 'reckless' and 'rash'. The fight 
over, both men behave suspiciously well. Covey admits himself 'fairly outdone', 
while, Washington concludes, 'it speaks well for the natural dignity and good 
sense of young Douglass that he neither boasted of his triumph nor did any- 
thing rash as a consequence of it'. 66 A few years later, Washington would ex- 
press concern at both the rash behaviour and boastfulness of the first black 
heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. 

Throughout the twentieth century, explorations of the nature of black lead- 
ership often allude to Douglass and his portrait crops up in many places, often 
aligned, or contrasted with, that of a prize-fighter. Douglass himself kept a pic- 
ture of Peter Jackson in his study and, according to James Weldon Johnson, 
'used to point to it and say, "Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the 
Negro question"'. 67 For many, Frederick Douglass's battle with Covey remained 
the model of what an authentic black vs. white fight should be (illus. 77). 

Following Emancipation and Reconstruction, increasing anxiety about polic- 
ing the boundaries between blacks and whites led to the introduction of wide- 
spread segregation (institutionalized with the infamous Supreme Court Pessy 
vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 which guaranteed 'separate but equal' status for 
blacks). In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois declared that 'the problem of the twentieth cen- 
tury' would be 'the problem of the color line', and the colour line was firmly 
asserted in most competitive sports. 68 Initially, boxing was less segregated than 
team sports such as baseball and football. George Dixon held the American ban- 
tamweight title from 1890 to 1892, and the featherweight title from 1892 to 1900; 
Joe Walcott was welterweight champion from 1901 to 1906, and Joe Gans was 
lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908. Although many white fans, particu- 
larly in the South, 'winced' every time a black boxer hit a white boxer, these fights 
continued. 69 But the heavyweight title carried heavier symbolism. 

Today Peter Jackson is often described as the finest boxer never to have 
fought for a world title. He wanted to, but no champion would take him on. 



Jacob Lawrence, 

Frederick Douglass 

series, no. 10, 

1938-9, tempera on 


Having won Australia's heavyweight championship in 1886, Jackson travelled 
to the United States looking for a match with John L. Sullivan. While he 
received an ecstatic reception from black Americans - 'in every city the local 
black community went wild with excitement over his presence and would 
honor him with a testimonial dinner' - Sullivan refused to meet him. 70 In 1891, 
in the face of a great deal of adverse publicity, Jim Corbett agreed to a contest. 
Corbett presented his decision to fight Jackson as a kind of experiment: 'There 
may be something in a dark opponent that is not found in a light one and, if 
so, it behooves me to find out.' 71 An unprecedented purse of $10,000 may also 
have helped. A classic of endurance, Jackson vs. Corbett was finally stopped 
in the 61st round, by which time the fighters were struggling to keep upright, 
and many spectators had fallen asleep. 72 As the fight had been declared a draw 
either man could justifiably have challenged Sullivan's title. Both did, but 
Sullivan ignored Jackson. A few months later Corbett won the title and imme- 
diately capitalized on his sex-symbol reputation by taking to the stage. He was 


not frightened of Jackson, he said, just too busy for a rematch. With no alter- 
natives, Jackson also resorted to the theatre, where he toured as Uncle Tom. 
When he tried to introduce a little sparring into the role (and thus maintain his 
credibility as a championship contender) the press complained that he had 
'degraded the character'. 73 

Peter Jackson's rather limited moment of glory came in 1892 at London's 
National Sporting Club. The Club had opened just six months earlier, and of- 
fered as the climax to its inaugural season a keenly fought contest between Jack- 
son and Frank Slavin. The fight lived up to its billing. Soon everyone who was 
anyone claimed to have been there. Young Winston Churchill bunked off from 
Harrow to attend. He drew a rather ugly caricature of Jackson and reputedly 
used it to settle his tuckshop bill. 74 The fight may have inspired another artist, 
too: in his 1898 volume of woodcuts, Almanac of Sports, Sir William Nicholson 
chose to represent boxing with an image of a white and a black fighter, poised 
for action (illus. 78). The night itself was a study in contrasts. Jackson, celebrated 
as the Black Prince, dressed in white; Slavin, who was white, wore dark blue. 
Jackson was slim and 'beautifully proportioned'. But it was Slavin, 'with his 
beetle brows and smouldering, deep-sunken eyes, leonine mane, fierce mous- 
tache, hairy chest and arms', who was London's idol. He was also an unabashed 


Sir William 


'November' from 

An Almanac of 

Twelve Sports, 


racist, and had loudly declared that 'to be beaten by a black fellow, however 
good a fellow, is a pill I shall never swallow'. Slavin had to swallow the pill, but it 
was administered with care. Jackson steadily demolished his outclassed opponent 
for nine rounds, then looked to the referee to stop the fight. Urged to box on, he 
brought Slavin to his knees with 'five mercifully gentle blows'. Someone heard 
him say, 'Sorry, Frank.' 75 Born in the Virgin Islands and raised in Australia, Jack- 
son knew the gestures that were required of the Empire's subjects. 7 In 1930 
James Weldon Johnson described Jackson as the first prize-fighter who was also 
a 'cultured gentleman'. 'His chivalry in the ring was so great that sports-writers 
down to today apply to him the doubtful compliment "a white colored man".' 77 
The next black contender, Jack Johnson, would not be so chivalrous. 


Writing in 1936 on the 'ethics of living Jim Crow', novelist Richard Wright noted 
many subjects that were 'taboo from the white man's point of view': 

American white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how Negro sol- 
diers fared while there; French women; Jack Johnson; the entire northern 
part of the United States; the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln; U. S. Grant; 
General Sherman; Catholics; the Pope; Jews; the Republican Party; slav- 
ery; social equality; Communism; Socialism; the 13th and 14th Amend- 
ments to the Constitution; or any topic calling for positive knowledge or 
manly self-assertion on the part of the Negro. 78 

Among a range of general topics such as 'slavery' and 'social equality', only four 
individuals are named: three are the liberators of the Civil War - General Sher- 
man, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln; the fourth, an early twentieth- 
century black boxer, Jack Johnson. How did Johnson endup in such illustrious 
company, and why his name was still taboo to whites in 1936? 

Born in the port of Galveston, Texas in 1878, Arthur John Johnson was of the 
first generation of free black Americans. At thirteen he began working on the 
docks where he soon developed a reputation as a fighter, and, at seventeen, he 
took up boxing professionally. After beating all the other good black heavy- 
weights, including Joe Jeanette and Sam Langford, he secured a title fight in 
Australia, then one of the world's boxing centres. The promoter's guarantee of 
$30,000 supposedly overcame the reluctance of then champion Tommy Burns 
(whose real name was Noah Brusso) to fight a black man. 'Shame on the money- 
mad Champion!' John L. Sullivan is said to have exclaimed, 'Shame on the man 
who upsets good American precedents because there are Dollars, Dollars, Dol- 
lars in it.' 79 On 26 December 1908, after fourteen rounds, during which Johnson 
casually taunted the out-matched Burns, the referee stopped the match. 80 Jack 
London was there, and his fight report established the terms in which Johnson 
would most often be subsequently described: 


A golden smile tells the story, and that golden smile was Johnson's . . . 
At times . . . Johnson would deliberately assume the fierce, vicious, in- 
tent expression, only apparently for the purpose of suddenly relaxing 
and letting his teeth flash forth like the rise of a harvest moon, while his 
face beamed with all the happy care-free innocence of a little child . . . 
[Johnson's] part was the clown. 81 

London's view of Johnson as a clown or a minstrel drew upon the myth of black 
shiftless gaiety peddled by 'coon songs' popular since before the Civil War (char- 
acteristic numbers included A Nigger's Life is Always Gay' and 'Happy Are We, 
Darkies So Gay'). When Johnson entered the ring to fight Jim Jeffries in Reno in 
1910, the band played All Coons Look Alike to Me'. 82 The popular press repre- 
sented Johnson's victory with a flurry of Sambo cartoons, all emphasizing his 
smile. 83 Johnson's 'golden grin' (he had several gold teeth) quickly became his 
trademark, a symbol of laughing defiance that infuriated and obsessed white 
America. But what many critics described as Johnson's laziness' was in fact a 
carefully thought out defensive style. He fought with his hands low, at only chest 
height, and looked like an artist leaning back from a canvas to evaluate the pic- 
ture from a distance'. This defensive style, Randy Roberts points out, was culti- 
vated by all the great black heavyweights of the time; in order to secure fights 
they needed 'to just barely defeat' their white opponents. 84 

Within moments of Johnson's gaining the title, the search for an Anglo- 
Saxon challenger began. Former champion Jim Jeffries was the popular choice 
to come out of retirement and 'remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson's 
face'. 85 Jeffries was 'the great white hope'. Now ubiquitous, the phrase seems to 
have been coined by London, perhaps trying to evoke Roosevelt's reputation as 
the 'Great White Father' or Rudyard Kipling's 'White Man's Burden'. Written in 
response to the Roosevelt-led American takeover of the Philippines after the 
Spanish-American War in 1899, Kipling's poem instructs readers to 'Take up 
the White Man's Burden - / Send forth the best ye breed'. 86 The expectations 
of white America were a heavy burden indeed. 

In the run-up to the Johnson-Jeffries fight, the Social Darwinian 'scientific' 
racist rhetoric of the day intensified. Promoter Tex Rickard foolishly advertised 
the fight as the 'ultimate test of racial superiority', and newspapers published 
articles predicting that Jeffries, who 'had Runnymede and Agincourt behind 
him', was bound to beat Johnson who 'had nothing but the jungle'. 87 The same 
result was also predicted, in song, by Groucho Marx, as an inadvisable part of 
his act at the Pekin, an all-black theatre in Chicago. Unfortunately for Groucho, 
'Johnson was in the audience'; he 'barely survived the evening'. 88 'Heart', the 
quality that Jews also seemed to lack, and a possible 'yellow streak' were much 
discussed. Is Johnson a typical example of his race in the lack of that intangible 
"something" that we call "heart"?' asked a typical newspaper columnist. 89 In 
the weird world of racial attribution, blacks did, it seemed, have some advan- 
tages. Would Johnson benefit from what some saw as an 'insensibility to pain 


which distinguishes the African and gives him a peculiar advantage in the sports 
of the ring'? Would Jeffries, 'a thinker' who 'undoubtedly possesses the worry- 
ing qualities of the white race' lose out to the 'care free and cool' Johnson? 'The 
art of relaxing', London claimed, was 'one of Johnson's great assets' since the 
'tensing of muscle consumes energy'. 90 

What was announced as the 'fight of the century' finally took place in Reno, 
Nevada, on 4 July 1910, and ended in the fifteenth round when Jeffries's seconds 
threw in the towel. Assertions of white supremacy suddenly seemed a lot less 

News of the result spread quickly by telegraph; crowds gathered in front 
of the 'automatic bulletin' at the New York Times building, and the paper later 
reported Johnson's mother and sisters listening to its click on the stage of the 
Pekin Theatre in Chicago and sharing 'in the big crowd's happiness'. 91 But 
for blacks in less congenial surroundings, the result was not such good news. 
Louis Armstrong recalled being told to hurry home from his paper round in 
New Orleans, while Henry Crowder remembered thousands of whites gath- 
ering in Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: 'no Negro dared show his face 
on that street'. 92 As the news spread by telegraph across America, lynchings, 
fights and full-scale riots were reported. Allen Guttman summarizes: 

In Houston, Charles Williams openly celebrated Johnson's triumph 
and a white man 'slashed his throat from ear to ear'; in Little Rock, two 
blacks were killed by a group of whites after an argument about the 
fight in a streetcar; in Roanoke, Virginia, a gang of white sailors injured 
several blacks; in Wilmington, Delaware, a group of blacks attacked a 
white and whites retaliated with a lynching bee'; in Atlanta a black ran 
amok with a knife; in Washington . . . two whites were fatally stabbed 
by blacks; in New York, one black was beaten to death and scores were 
injured; in Pueblo, Colorado, thirty people were injured in a race riot; 
in Shreveport, Louisiana, three blacks were killed by white assailants. 
Other murders or injuries were reported in New Orleans, Baltimore, 
Cincinnati, St Joseph, Los Angeles, Chattanooga, and many other small 
cities and towns. 93 

For some, the dead became martyrs in the struggle for equality. William 
Pickens, later field secretary of the naacp, wrote in the Chicago Defender that 
'it was a good deal better for Johnson to win, and a few Negroes to be killed in 
body for it, than for Johnson to have lost and all Negroes to have been killed 
in spirit by the preachments of inferiority from the combined white press'. 94 
A 1910 postcard presented Johnson alongside Abraham Lincolm as 'Our 
Champions' (illus. 79). 

In the months and years that followed, the search for a suitable white chal- 
lenger continued. Johnson had refused to fight any black contenders, recogniz- 
ing that in such contests he had nothing to gain and everything to lose. 'I am 


IfVH rli.iu.p : kp ( .-.|.:T-.< 1910— CliMnliJiM. 1 [r.lf HT.xdl 

K,. r l" Cdm, »F(J*W»ikJ. 


• ■ 

H x^^^B^. 


\f *7"v / 

Abiiki ii fin (■ . 

/ v... 





0«r Champions: 

Abraham Lincoln 


postcard, 1910. 

champion of the world', he reputedly said, 'I have had a hard time to get a 
chance and I really think I am the only colored fellow who ever was given a 
chance to win the title . . . I'll retire the only colored heavyweight champion.' 95 
Soon, as John Lardner put it, 'well-muscled white boys more than six feet two 
inches tall were not safe out of their mother's sight', but nothing seemed to 
work. 96 Seeing Johnson humble successive white hopes, many whites lost hope 
about the best that they could breed. Some took comfort in the belief that it 
was merely generational problem . 'Honestly', asked William A. Phelon, 'is there 
one single, genuine, solitary Hope, now rampant and challenging, that you be- 
lieve could have gone five rounds with Bob Fitzsimmons?' Fitzsimmons, Sulli- 
van, or Corbett 'could have plowed though the present staff of hopes like an axe 
through cheese'. 97 In a 1912 cartoon, a red-faced reveller looks at a poster adver- 
tising the latest challenger and reflects, 'If I wuz the man I wuz, they wouldn't 
need him' (illus. 53). 

Some decided simply to ignore Johnson and staged all-white champion- 
-ships. Georges Carpentier's London fight against Gunboat Smith in 1914, for 
instance, was billed the 'White World Heavy-Weight Championship'; Carpentier 
noted that this was 'certainly good publicity if perhaps a trifle unorthodox'. 98 
Others relied on fiction for consolatory stories of white triumph. Just a few 
months after Jeffries's defeat, Jack London began work on The Absymal Brute, 
the story of a white boy, Pat Glendon, who only fights other white boys. 
Nevertheless, Johnson's existence as the real champion was hard for London to 
forget. Glendon is described as 'the hope of the white race' and there is a passing 
reference to Jeffries who could have 'worried' him 'a bit, but only a bit'. 99 Jeffries 
and the Reno fight are also mentioned in Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1914 serial The 
Mucker and W.R.H. Trowbridge's The White Hope (1913), but there too, fictional 
compensation is provided. After defeating a series of 'white hopes', Burroughs's 
Chicago-Irish 'mucker', Billy Byrne, emerges as 'the most likely heavy since 


Jeffries'. The story ends with a deal to fight 'the black champion', although 
Byrne's manager complains that the terms are 'as usual, rather one-sided'. 100 
More ambitious in its fantasy, the finale of The White Hope sees the middle- 
weight crown wrested away from a 'grinning' black champion. 

The negro's knees sagged and he lurched forward . . . Sam Crowfoot, 
face down on the boards, with the sand of the ring showing in patches 
on his black skin, was out to the world. 101 


Advertisement for 
Fight Pictures, 1910. 

Jeffries-Johnson Fight Pictures 

BHUi uncii ; 

Much of the public agitation about Johnson's continuing success centred 
around its representation, and circulation, on film. In 1910, many states acted 
quickly to ban showings of the Reno film, arguing that riots would necessarily 
follow. The film was not shown in the South or in most American cities. When 
news spread that Johnson was due to defend his title against Jim Flynn on 4 July 
1912, the '"white hopes" of Congress' got to work. 102 Just weeks after Johnson's 
knockout of Flynn, the Sims Act was passed, forbidding the interstate trans- 
portation of any film showing 'any prize fight or encounter of pugilists' for 
'purposes of public exhibition' (illus. 80). In 1915, when D. W. Griffith's Klan- 
celebrating The Birth of a Nation was released, James Weldon Johnson won- 
dered if 'some of the moral fervour' expended against prize-fight films might 
be extended to Griffith's movie. 103 

Whites who had previously cele- 
brated boxing as the sport of manly 
self-assertion, now remarked brutality. 
Theodore Roosevelt, longtime champion 
of the strenuous art, announced that he 
was forsaking boxing after Jeffries 's defeat. 
T sincerely trust,' Roosevelt declared 
piously, 'that public sentiment will be so 
aroused, and will make itself felt so effec- 
tively, as to guarantee that this is the last 
prize fight to take place in the United 
States.' 104 How curious, W.E.B. Du Bois 
pointed, that it was only when the world 
champion was black that commentators 
felt the urge to object to boxing per se. 
'Neither he nor his race invented prize 
fighting or particularly like it. Why then 
this thrill of national disgust? Because 
Johnson is black.' 105 In the years that 
followed Johnson's 1915 defeat, Du Bois 
remained unsure about the significance 
of boxers as cultural heroes. On the one 
hand, he worried that an interest in sport 

Tfei U Hm Hkc-ttt, Hm, Htrtfc, Jut? 4, I9t0. Dj 1h» 


*--■!- ni(i'nl«il ■■■!«■*• 

Every Vital Mttment of the 
World's Crealesl Kitvv-wiiglil Ohanpiwisliip Battle 


Tbii u Ih Cnlriin (Hmrlmilj !**• Lin, llp-te-Nii-Mnril Shownun 

ma m wsnimr the bki hctujes m the umn 

— Ti~t—- ^i^' > _ - * +— -i. *** J ***■ ^ 1 ii h--*HiHLp»^B»pp 
Mf¥rrm wif mitM-r* mi ma mothiii u ^n.n*"ir> H airbittCnn m IB 

These are Ihe ffnlf Csiilmb Jeffrie Jolran field Piclures 

LOUIS J. BERG.ER, Secretary. 

TSflft BroBdw«v- l-.m~- -~ -™,-*«i« HEW YORK CUT 

M^['i-:f "«1 1*1 1"*" *■■■ "ii'ii hfiiiL Hiu 11 r mi urn 

™»- B L M * _* '*■ — "*f5V^^T* "YTV"" rfj * "*" ' *^_W^ 


might distract black Americans from the importance of education, noting, for 
example, that the receipts from Harry Willis's fight with Luis Firpo were 
'enough to endow a Negro University'. 106 On the other hand, the continuing 
success of black boxers in the 1920s was a repeated blow to white supremacy, 
and their continuing bad treatment a reminder that whites were 'afraid to meet 
black boxers in competition wherever equality and fairness in the contest 
are necessary'. 107 

As a folk hero Jack Johnson's reputation rested on much more than simply 
his boxing skill. In and out of the ring, he flamboyantly broke taboos. Urged by 
civil rights activist Ida B. Wells to invest in a gymnasium for black boys in 
Chicago's South Side, Johnson instead opened the Cafe de Champion, serving 
black and white customers together. Wells complained that he was catering to 
the 'worst passions of both races'. 108 By his own admission, Johnson was 'a 
dandy'; shaving his head and sporting everything Booker T. Washington had 
promised whites that accommodating blacks would refrain from wearing: 'a 
high hat, imitation gold eye-glasses, a showy walking-stick, kid gloves, fancy 
boots, and what not'. 109 In 1909 Washington's personal secretary argued that 
Johnson needed to 'refrain from anything resembling boastfulness'. 110 He also 
liked fast cars and famously hired a white chauffeur to drive him around. 111 
Worse of all, Johnson spent his money on white prostitutes and had three wives, 
all white. 112 Just months after legislating against the interstate transportation of 
Johnson's films, the American legal system took another shot at the champion. 
In 1912 Johnson was charged with having violated the 1910 'White Slave Traffic 
Act', also known by the name of its sponsor, Mann. The Act was designed to 
target commercial vice rings and it was rare that individuals were taken to court. 
But, 'for Jack Johnson the government was willing to make an exception'. When 
charges concerning Lucille Cameron (a 'sporting woman' whom he later mar- 
ried) fell through, the government latched onto Belle Schreiber. Resentful at 
having been rejected by Johnson, she testified to receiving money and crossing 
state lines with the boxer. 113 Booker T. Washington issued a statement deplor- 
ing Johnson's behaviour and claiming that it would injure the 'whole race'. 'I do 
not believe it is necessary for me to say that the honest, sober element of the 
Negro people of the United States is as severe in condemnation of this kind of 
immorality ... as any other portion of the community.' 114 The whole case was, 
as Johnson later said, 'a rank frame-up.' 115 But that made no odds. Convicted by 
a white jury and sentenced to a year and a day in prison and a $1000 fine, he 
jumped bail and fled the country with Lucille in 1913. He spent the next two 
years in giving exhibition fights and performing as the 'agreeable gentleman 
with the settled smile and the shining white teeth' in vaudeville in Europe, 
Canada, and Mexico. 116 In 1915 Johnson agreed to defend his title against the 
white American Jess Willard in Havana. Willard knocked Johnson out in the 
26th round according, Johnson later claimed, to a deal he had made with the fbi 
in order to be allowed to return to the States. Most boxing historians, having 
studied the film footage, believe that it was a fair fight. 117 On becoming cham- 


pion, Willard immediately reinstated the colour line. It was upheld until 1937 
when Joe Louis finally broke it for good. 

In the years that followed his defeat, Johnson's star showed no signs of wan- 
ing. When he arrived in Harlem in 1921, after finally serving his jail sentence in 
Kansas, he was welcomed by thousands as a returning hero. The explosion of 
1920s black urban culture, now known as the Harlem Renaissance, established 
him as an iconic figure. Claude McKay's 1928 novel Home to Harlem is full of ref- 
erences to Johnson; every time someone gets hit his name is evoked. As well as 
pugnacity, the boxer represented the possibility of black celebrity. One little 
boy shows off to another that he 'done met mos'n all our big niggers', including 
Johnson, but both are upstaged by a Miss Curdy who claims to know 'all that up- 
stage race gang that wouldn't touch Jack Johnson with a ten-foot pole'. The 
greatest compliment the protagonist Jake receives is when someone tells him, 
'If I was as famous as Jack Johnson and rich as Madame Walker I'd prefer to 
have you as my friend than - President Wilson.' 118 

The eventful, and inspirational, life of Johnson appealed to writers, and even 
more to publishers. In 1930, following the success of the reissued The Autobiog- 
raphy of an Ex-Colored Man, publisher Blanche Knopf urged James Weldon John- 
son to write a novel based on Johnson. When he refused, she turned to Walter 
White. Although he contemplated including Johnson in a planned series of bi- 
ographical essays and wrote 152 pages of a novel about a boxer, neither project 
was completed. 119 Instead Johnson's story was told in minstrel show sketches 
such as The Coming Champion (illus. 54) and in a Broadway play by two white 
writers, Jim Tully and Frank Dazey, called Black Boy. 1,10 Black Boy opened in 1926, 
with Paul Robeson taking the lead (illus. 81). The fact that 'Black Boy' became in- 
volved with a white woman on stage prompted great controversy. Robert Cole- 
man wrote in the New York Daily Mirror that 'the authors have cheapened their 
portrait of the pugilist by introducing the problem of race antagonism. In our 
opinion it is always in bad taste to introduce this unpleasant element.' 121 


The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was not simply a flowering of black art, 
but part of a much larger process of political and social change. Postwar politi- 
cal radicalism was largely diverted into a cultural patriotism which asked what 
'gift' blacks could contribute to the American melting pot. 122 Works such as Alain 
Locke's The New Negro (1925) and V. F. Calverton's An Anthology of American Negro 
Literature (1929) sought to demonstrate 'the existence of the black tradition as a 
political defense of the racial self against racism'. 123 In a 1916 essay called 'Inside 
Measurement', James Weldon Johnson considered what he thought were the 
'various methods of measurement for ascertaining the progress of the American 
Negro'. What he termed 'outside measurements' recorded growth in population 
and increase in wealth. An 'inner measurement' could be made by keeping 'a 
record of the number of intelligently written books bought and read each year by 



Paul Robeson on 

stage in Black Boy, 


the colored people'. 124 Johnson developed this idea further in The Book of Amer- 
ican Negro Poetry (1922), where he argued that the artistic achievement of black 
Americans could go a long way in improving their social status in the United 
States. 125 In 1903 Du Bois had argued that an overemphasis on industrial educa- 
tion would not produce black leaders: instead a 'talented tenth' must be encour- 
aged to achieve as cultured individuals in order to 'inspire the masses'. 126 

Johnson was a problematic figure for the Harlem intellectuals. On the one 
hand, it was widely believed that art and literature were the correct ways to 
demonstrate 'intellectual parity'. On the other, in 1915, Weldon Johnson con- 
ceded that 'there is not, perhaps, a spot on the globe where Jack Johnson's name 
is not familiar'. 

Johnson's bad personal breaks deprived him of the sympathy and ap- 
proval of most of his own race; yet it must be admitted that with these 


breaks left out of the question, his record as a pugilist has been some- 
thing of a racial asset. The white race, in spite of its vaunted civiliza- 
tion, pays more attention to the argument of force than any other race 
in the world. 127 

Some years later, Weldon Johnson wrote of his meeting with Jack Johnson, and, 
alluding to Douglass's comment that Peter Jackson had done 'a great deal with 
his fists to solve the Negro question', concluded that 'after the reckoning of his 
big and little failings has been made, [Johnson] may be said to have done his 
share'. 128 If the celebration of a sports hero was difficult to square with a belief 
in artistic and intellectual achievement, one way to reconcile them was to con- 
sider boxing itself as an art or as analogous to art. In his 1916 essay, 'The Negro 
in American Art', Weldon Johnson had argued that 'there is nothing of artistic 
value belonging to America which has not been originated by the Negro'. As 
'partial corroboration' he quoted the white avant-garde artist and editor Robert 
Coady, describing Jack Johnson's 'shadow dancing', as 'the most beautiful danc- 
ing of modern times'. 'When he strikes a fighting pose', Coady rhapsodized, 'we 
are carried back to the days of Greek bronzes.' 129 Perhaps it was not so far- 
fetched then to imagine Johnson as a member of the Talented Tenth. 130 

But not everyone agreed with such analogies. In 1926 George Schuyler de- 
nounced what he called 'The Negro-Art Hokum'. There was, he claimed, no 
unique Aframerican art': 'the literature, painting and sculpture of Aframeri- 
cans - such as there is - is identical in kind with the literature, painting and 
sculpture of white Americans'. To say otherwise, he implied, was just another 
form of racist thinking: 

The mere mention of the word 'Negro' conjures up in the average white 
American's mind a composite stereotype of Bert Williams, Aunt 
Jemima, Uncle Tom, Jack Johnson, Florian Slappy, and the various mon- 
strosities scrawled by cartoonists. Your average Aframerican no more 
resembles this stereotype than the average American resembles a com- 
posite of Andy Gump, Jim Jeffries, and a cartoon by Rube Goldberg. 131 

For Schuyler, Johnson's influence was of no more use than that of Uncle Tom; 
indeed, in some ways, it might be seen as worse. 'It must be tragic for a sensitive 
Negro to be a poet', George Bernard Shaw remarked to Claude McKay in 1920. 
'Why didn't you choose pugilism instead of poetry for a profession?' 132 


For the most part, Jack Johnson was celebrated less for his statuesque appearance 
than for his defiant qualities - however stereotypal those might be. During the 
First World War, for example, heavy black shells were nicknamed 'Jack John- 
sons'. 133 Numerous songs celebrated his victory over Jeffries. One blues reworked 


'Amazing Grace' so that the 'sweet' and saving sound was no longer God's word, 
but the thud of Jeffries hitting the canvas. 

Amaze an' Grace, how sweet it sounds, 
Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down. 
Jim Jeffries jumped up an' hit Jack on the chin, 
An' then Jack knocked him down agin. 

The Yankees hold the play, 

The white man pulls the trigger; 

But it makes no difference what the white man say, 

The world champion's still a nigger. 134 

However assertive the 'but' might be, it only serves highlight the limits of John- 
son's victory in a world in which the white man 'holds the play' and 'pulls the 
trigger'. Other popular songs were less equivocal. 'The Black Gladiator: Veni, 
Vidi, Vici- Jack Johnson' celebrated his victory over Burns as 'proof that all 
men are the same / in muscle, sinew, and in brain / No blood flows through 
our veins / but that of Negro Ham's own strain / Master of all the world -your 
claim.' 135 'Titanic', a 1912 song by Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), is equally forth- 
right. The flooring of Jeffries is matched as a blow to white supremacists only by 
the sinking of the Titanic (which wouldn't allow blacks as passengers). 

It was midnight on the sea, 

The band was playin' 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.' 

Cryin', 'Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!' 

Jack Johnson wanted to get on boa'd; 

Captain Smith hollered, 'I ain't haulin' no coal.' 

Crying 'Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!' 

Black man oughta shout for joy, 
Never lost a girl or either a boy. 
Crying, 'Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!' 1313 

At the end of the First World War, the black soldiers who returned to Amer- 
ica were unwilling to put up with escalating white racism. The summer of 1919 
saw unprecedented race riots, and in their wake, the Liberator published Claude 
McKay's sonnet, 'If We Must Die', now often considered the 'inaugural address' 
of the Harlem Renaissance. 137 The poem depicted blacks as 'hogs', 'hunted and 
penned in an inglorious spot', and whites as 'mad and hungry dogs / Making 
their mock at our accursed lot'. It ends with the plea that 'though far outnum- 
bered let us show brave, / And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!' 


Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, 
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! 138 

What was supposedly 'new' about the much discussed New Negro was not 
aggression but retaliation; not a desire to fight, but a renewed willingness to 
fight back. 139 In 1921, Rollin Lynde Hartt, a white Congregational minister and 
journalist, described 'a negro magazine' bearing the legend (an adaptation of 
Frederick Douglass's Childe Harold allusion), 'They who would be free must 
themselves strike the blow.' When hit, Hartt concluded, the New Negro, unlike 
'the timorous, docile negro of the past', does not hesitate to 'hit back'. 140 The 
political radicalism of the New Negro was often linked to his 'dauntless man- 
hood'. 'The Old Negro,' wrote J. A. Rogers in 1927, 'protests that he does not 
want social equality; the New . . . demands it.' While 'the Old . . . acts as if he 
were always in the way', 'the New is erect, manly, bold; if necessary, defiant'. 141 

For many, the New Negro was epitomized in the figure of Jack Johnson, 
and his name became a shorthand for many different kinds of 'erect, manly; if 
necessary, defiant' behaviour. Zora Neale Hurston noted that in the folktales 
she grew up with, the trickster who 'outsmarted the devil' was always called 
'Jack' or 'High John de Conquer'; he was 'our hope-bringer'. 142 After 1910, black 
men who challenged, and beat, white authority were commonly dubbed, or 
dubbed themselves, 'Jack Johnson'. 143 In 1934 Henry Crowder published a 
series of eight autobiographical vignettes about segregation, racial abuse, and 
'hitting back' in Negro, an anthology edited by Nancy Cunard. In the first, he 
walks away after being refused service in a Georgia cafe, but by the second, he 
is not afraid to 'wade in'. The final vignette tells of Johnson's defeat of Jeffries 
and the fights that broke out in its wake in Washington. While the police search 
for 'a giant Negro armed with brass knuckles', 'we Negroes remained where 
we were, drinking and laughing'. 144 

One of the books reviewed in Negro was Sterling Brown's Southern Road 
(1932); Alain Locke designated Brown 'the New Negro Folk-Poet'. 145 In one of the 
strongest poems in the collection, 'Strange Legacies', Brown places Johnson 
alongside John Henry and 'a nameless couple' of sharecroppers as symbols of 
folk resilience; all endured their troubles, 'taking punishment'. The poem ends, 
'guess we'll give it one mo' try'. 

One thing you left with us, Jack Johnson. 
One thing before they got you. 

You used to stand there like a man, 

Taking punishment 

With a golden, spacious grin; 


Inviting big Jim Jeffries, who was boring in: 

"Heah ah is, big boy; yuh sees whah Ise at. 


Come on in . . ." 
Thanks, Jack, for that. 146 

Some linked Johnson's 'hitting back' to Frederick Douglass's resistance to 
Covey, and Johnson himself lined up with Douglass against Booker T. Wash- 
ington, who had condemned his behaviour on several occasions. Washington, 
Johnson wrote in 1927, ' has to my mind not been altogether frank in the state- 
ment of the problem or courageous in his solutions'. Douglass's 'honest and 
straightforward program has had more of an appeal to me, because he faced is- 
sues without compromising.' 147 In 1919, Johnson had taken out an adver- 
tisement in an Industrial Workers of the World magazine, Gale's, urging 'colored 
people' to leave 'the "boasted" land of the liberty' and move to Mexico where 
they would no longer be lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted and discrim- 
inated against'. 148 

In 1922 Claude McKay travelled to the Soviet Union, one of the first black 
Americans to be invited by the Bolshevik government. While in Moscow he was 
commissioned to write a short book to inform the Soviets about the condition of 
Negry v Amerike {The Negroes in America). Although McKay was keen to argue that 
race should be considered primarily 'from a class point of view', his analysis 
focuses as much on culture as on economics. 149 In a chapter titled 'Negroes in 
Sports', McKay provides a complex and astute reading of Jack Johnson and the 
ideological status of black boxers more generally. 150 The prize-fighter only has 
limited value as a symbol for defiance. Although the boxing ring can seem to be a 
site of struggle against white dominance (one where African-American workers 
'exert all their efforts to gain the victory' and one where victory is possible), it 
nevertheless remains a 'large business . . . managed by corporations', white 
corporations that set the terms of black entrance and success. For McKay, it was 
foolish to believe that 'racial differences' could be resolved by 'fist fights arranged 
for a commercial purpose'. 151 Langston Hughes made a similar point in 'Prize 
Fighter' (1927): 

Only dumb guys fight 

If I wasn't dumb 

I wouldn't be fightin'. 

I could make six dollars a day. 

On the docks 

And I'd save more than I do now. 

Only dumb guys fight. 152 

But while Marxists such as Hughes and McKay pointed out the economic 
reality, the symbolism of Johnson's career, and interracial fighting more gener- 
ally, continued to have resonance for many artists and writers. In Archibald J. 
Motley's 1933 painting, The Plotters, a fight between a black and a white boxer 


is used to represent not simply defiance and resilience, but conspiracy (illus. 
55). The painting depicts a group of black men sitting at a table, and the title tells 
us what they are doing. Two men at the table look intently at one another while 
a partially obscured standing figure points at a piece of paper. On the wall be- 
hind the table we see part of a painting, featuring a black and a white boxer. 
The men at the table, like the boxers in the painting, seem too large for the 
confines of the framed space. A boxing match may be nothing more than a de- 
grading, commercially motivated performance, nevertheless, as Motley sug- 
gests, it can symbolically represent a real fight. 

A similar thought seems to lie behind 'Box Seat', a story in Jean Toomer's 
Cane (1923), in which a boxing match between dwarfs is performed as a 
grotesque spectacle. Dan Moore, angry and frustrated with the 'sick' world, has 
followed the respectable Muriel into the theatre. At first he is appalled by the 
freak show and thinks Muriel, who is trying to pass as white, a 'she-slave' for 
watching. But all of a sudden, play-acting breaks out into something else when 
one of the men lands a stiff blow'. 'This makes the other sore. He commences 
slugging. A real scrap is on.' 

The gong rings. No fooling this time. The dwarfs set to. They clinch. The 
referee parts them. One swings a cruel upper-cut and knocks the other 
down. A huge head hits the floor. Pop! The house roars. The fighter, 
groggy, scrambles up. The referee whispers to the contenders not to fight 
so hard. They ignore him. They charge. Their heads jab like boxing 
gloves. They kick and spit and bite. They pound each other furiously. 
Muriel pounds. The house pounds. Cut lips. Bloody noses. The referee 
asks for the gong. Time! The house roars. The dwarfs bow, are made to 
bow. The house wants more. The dwarfs are led from the stage. 153 

But the crowd is not satisfied until the violence of the contest is defused by the 
winner of the fight, Mr. Barry, singing 'a sentimental love song' to various girls 
in the audience. Finally Mr. Barry turns to Muriel, and offers her a white rose, 
which he has kissed with his blood-stained lips. She 'shrinks away', 'flinches 
back', 'tight in revulsion', but this only provokes him further. Dan reads the 
dwarf's eyes as a reproach and an acknowledgment of their shared identity as 
Christ-like freaks. He leaps up, shouts, 'jesus was once a leper!', and 'hooks' 
the jaw of the complaining man sitting next to him. The story ends with the 
man taking off his jacket to fight in earnest in an alley behind the theatre, but 
Dan, 'having forgotten him', walks away. 154 


Jack Johnson's career had a significant resonance for white, as well as black, 
artists and writers. While black artists saw Johnson as an inspirational figure 
(whether representing the possibility of celebrity, progress or defiance) and paid 


no attention either to his white opponents or to his white wives, whites were 
almost obsessively drawn to representations of a black and a white man fight- 
ing together. The only time that Johnson (or a Johnson-like figure) is mentioned 
without reference to a white opponent, or girlfriend, he functions as a minstrel 
figure. 155 In Conan Doyle's 1926 story, 'The Adventure of the Three Gables', a 
black boxer bursts into Sherlock Holmes's rooms at Baker Street and offends 
Dr Watson and the detective with his 'hideous mouth' and 'smell'. Watson's 
first impression is that 'he would have been a comic figure if he had not been 
terrific, for he was dressed in a very loud gray check suit with a flowing salmon- 
coloured tie. His broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen 
dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us 
to the other.' After he has left Holmes tells Watson that he is 'glad you were not 
forced to break his woolly head': 'he is really rather a harmless fellow, a great 
muscular, foolish, blustering baby, and easily cowed, as you have seen.' 156 John- 
son is also 'easily cowed' in a story that William Carlos Williams included in his 
Autobiography. One day there was 'a near riot' in a cafe in Paris. 'They began tear- 
ing the chairs apart for clubs. When it was all over and the lights went on again 
they found the World's Champion under a table scared stiff. "That's not the 
kind of fight I'm interested in," he said frankly.' 157 

The image which perhaps best encapsulates the white response to Johnson 
is George Bellows 's Both Members of this Club (1909), originally entitled A Nig- 
ger and A White Man (illus. 82). Bellows began work on the painting in October 


George Bellows, 
Both Members of 
This Club, 1909. 



George Bellows, The 

White Hope, 1921. 

1909, the month in which the terms for Johnson's fight against Jeffries were 
finally agreed. The setting is dark and the figures are elongated smears of white, 
brown and red paint; the faces in the crowd are grotesques. The painting re- 
works the geometrical design and impasto of earlier works such as Stag at 
Sharkey's, but is considerably larger and more claustrophobically 'dreamlike' in 
its atmosphere. 158 The title refers to the fact that, because of the legal restric- 
tions on prize-fights, boxers as well as spectators needed to take out a nominal 
club 'membership'. This practice meant that Jim Crow America found itself 
sanctioning organizations in which blacks and whites could both be members. 
In his choice of title, Bellows seems to be making a joke about the fact that a 
law designed to stop one undesirable practice (boxing) should lead to another 
(what Claude McKay described as the 'strange un-American' coming together 
of blacks and whites under equal terms). 159 The painting's perspective suggests 
that the viewer too has joined the club. After finishing Both Members, Bellows 
abandoned boxing as a subject for paintings until the mid-±920s. His litho- 
graphs, however, continue to explore America's obsession with interracial 
boxing. 160 The White Hope did not appear until 1921, by which time the colour 
line had been firmly re-established (illus. 83). It was now safe to imagine white 
defeat and black compassion. 

A Matter of Color' was the title of the first boxing story written by Ernest 
Hemingway, as a high school student in 1916. A Ring Lardner-style vernacular 
yarn with an 0. Henry twist at the end, it presents a retired trainer telling the 
story of how he had once fixed a fight by hiring a 'big Swede' to clobber the black 
opponent, the young Joe Gans no less, with a baseball bat through a curtain. 


But the Swede hit the white boxer by mistake. Back in the dressing room, the 
trainer asks him, 'Why in the name of the Prophet did you hit the white man in- 
stead of the black man?' The Swede replies, 'I bane color blind.' 161 The story 
ends there. (Joe Gans went on to become world lightweight champion.) 

It is not surprising that in 1916 a young boxing fan such as Hemingway 
would have thought to write of a set-up against a black boxer. The previous year, 
Jack Johnson had finally been defeated by Willard, and soon afterwards he 
began to claim it was a set-up. Hemingway never commented directly on this 
fight, or indeed on Johnson's career, but his subsequent fiction repeatedly drew 
on interracial boxing for more than simply a snappy punch line. In The Sun Also 
Rises (1925), Bill Gorton returns to Paris after a trip to Vienna where he wit- 
nesses a fixed fight between a bribed black American and an unskilled local. 

Wonderful nigger. Looked like Tiger Flowers, only four times as big. 
All of a sudden everybody started to throw things. Not me. Nigger'd 
just knocked local boy down. Nigger put up his glove. Wanted to make 
a speech. Awful noble-looking nigger. Started to make a speech. Then 
local white boy hit him. Then he knocked white boy cold. Then every- 
body commenced to throw chairs . . . Big sporting evening. 

For all his casually racist speech, Gorton is the good guy in the story, and he 
helps the fighter, who never gets the money owed to him, flee the enraged 
crowd. 'Injustice everywhere', he concludes. 162 Later in the same chapter, the 
two friends go off to have dinner with Jake's ex-lover, Brett (whom he notices is 
not wearing stockings), and her new fiance, the 'very fit' Mike Campbell. When 
Mike asks, 'Isn't she a lovely piece? Don't you think so, Jake?', Bill replies, 
'There's a fight tonight . . . Like to go?' The implication is that Jake, who has 'a 
rotten habit of picturing the bedroom scenes of my friends', wants to fight 
Mike. 163 Bill understands this impossible-to-realize ambition and provides an 
alternative outlet for his friend. Although he has to change the date to suit the 
novel's chronology, Hemingway makes a particular point of mentioning the 
names of the fighters they see in action, Charles Ledoux and Kid Francis. Once 
a great fighter, Ledoux was past his prime in 1925, and that night he lost 'a 
twelve-round decision in a furious brawl with his younger opponent'. Michael 
Reynolds notes that the evening confirmed Hemingway's view that 'champions 
never come back'; a view, which it seems, Jake was also entertaining. 164 Injustice 
(whether racial, economic or romantic) is indeed everywhere. 

The White Hope era also informs Hemingway's 'The Light of the World' 
(i933), in which the teenage narrator and his friend, Tom, encounter a motley 
crew of late-night travellers at a railway station: 'five whores . . ., and six white 
men and four Indians'. 165 Among the prostitutes are two 'big' women, Alice and 
Peroxide, who argue about who really knew 'Steve' or 'Stanley' Ketchel (they 
also can't agree on the first name). 166 The cook remembers Stanley Ketchel's 
1909 fight with Jack Johnson, in particular how Ketchel had floored Johnson in 


the twelfth round just before Johnson knocked him out. 7 Peroxide attributes 
Ketchel's defeat to a punch by Johnson ('the big black bastard') when Ketchel, 
'the only man she ever loved', smiled at her in the audience. Alice remembers 
Steve Ketchel telling her she was 'a lovely piece'. They both refer continuously 
to Ketchel's 'whiteness' - 'I never saw a man as clean and as white and as beau- 
tiful', says Peroxide. 'White', as Walter Benn Michaels notes, 'becomes an adjec- 
tive describing character instead of skin' and so Ketchel is figured as a kind of 
Christ-like figure, while Johnson, 'that black son of a bitch from hell', is the 
devil. 168 Ketchel's pseudo-divinity is suggested by such statements as 'I loved 
him like you love God'; 'His own father shot and killed him. Yes, by Christ, his 
own father'; and, of course, the title. Philip Young points out that Hemingway 
placed this story after 'the most pessimistic of all his stories', 'A Clean, Well- 
Lighted Place', in Winner Take Nothing 'as if the point of the story is really that 
the light of the world has gone out.' 169 

But there seems to be more going on under the surface of this particular 
iceberg. First of all, the confusion of names and facts is important, and once 
again, some knowledge of boxing history helps. Stanley Ketchel was not killed 
by his father - that was Steve Ketchel, a lightweight boxer, who never got near 
Johnson. Stanley was shot in 1910, by the husband of a woman with whom he 
was having an affair. Secondly, of all boxers, Stanley Ketchel was perhaps the 
most unlikely possible candidate for Redeemer. His nickname was the 'Michi- 
gan Assassin', and, according to one reporter, 'he couldn't get enough blood.' 170 
While the prostitutes may be seeking salvation, the story that they tell is ab- 
surd. So what is going on? Howard Hannum argues that much of the dialogue 
between the two women 'has the quality of counterpunching', as if they are 
restaging Ketchel's contest against Johnson: here, the (bleached) blonde versus 
the heavyweight. 171 But the cook's role also needs to be considered. The discus- 
sion of whiteness begins when the narrator notices a 'white man' speaking; 'his 
face was white and his hands were white and thin'. The other men tease the 
cook about the whiteness of his hands ('he puts lemon juice on his hands') and 
hint that he is gay. Are these two things connected? And, if they are, what does 
that suggest about clean, white, beautiful Ketchel? When asked his age, Tom 
joins in the sexual bantering with hints at 'inversion' - 'I'm ninety-six and he's 
sixty-nine' - but throughout the boys remain uneasy and confused. By the end 
of the story, the narrator seems quite smitten with Alice ('she had the prettiest 
face I ever saw'). Tom notices this and says it is time to leave. The supposedly 
natural order of whites beating blacks, men having sex with women, and 'huge 
whores' being unappealing has been unsettled. When the cook asks where the 
boys are going, Tom replies, 'the other way from you'. 

Racial and sexual ambiguities also trouble 'The Battler', one of the Nick 
Adams initiation stories in In Our Time (1922). 172 The story begins with Nick 
himself having just survived a battle with a brakeman on a freight train. He has 
been thrown off the train and lands with a scuffed knee and bruise on the face, 
of which he is rather proud - 'He wished he could see it' - but he is still stand- 


ing. 'He was all right.' Nick then ventures into another battling arena - a firelit 
camp which seems to be a refuge but which also turns out to be a kind of box- 
ing ring. 173 There he encounters Ad Francis, an ex-champion prize-fighter whose 
bruises are more impressive, and much more disgusting, than his own. 

In the firelight Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was 
sunken, his eyes were like slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not 
perceive all this at once, he only saw the man's face was queerly formed 
and mutilated. It was like putty in color. Dead looking in the firelight. 174 

That 'Nick did not perceive all this at once' suggests that he kept looking away. 
'Don't you like my pan?' the fighter asks, revealing even worse: 'He had only 
one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other 
one should have been there was a stump.' Although Nick is 'a little sick', he coun- 
ters Ad's pugnacious assertions with gusto: 

'It must have made him [the brakeman] feel good to bust you,' the man 

said seriously. 
'I'll bust him.' . . . 
All you kids are tough.' 
'You got to be tough,' Nick said. 
'That's what I said.' 

Nick's pleasure at establishing a rapport with a fellow battler is short-lived, 
however. Ad, he discovers, is unstable ('crazy'), and depends on his companion 
Bugs to stop him battling. When Ad tries to start a fight with Nick, in 'an ugly 
parody of a boxing match', Bugs intervenes by knocking him out with a stick 
from behind in a manner that recalls A Matter of Color'. 175 Colour is also impor- 
tant here as Nick is obviously startled by the fact that Bugs is black, and makes 
a great deal of his 'negro's voice', the 'negro way' he walks, and his 'long nigger's 
legs'. Although it has been argued that the story reveals Hemingway's racism, 
these almost compulsively repeated epithets (like those describing whiteness 
in 'The Light of the World') seem to be Nick's as he struggles to understand the 
relationship between the two men. White prize-fighters, after all, were not sup- 
posed to have black friends. Bugs tells Nick a story about Ad which adds to his 
confusion. Ad had a woman manager, and it was always being 'written up in 
the papers all about brothers and sisters and how she loved her brother and 
how he loved his sister, and then they got married in New York and that made 
a lot of unpleasantness'. Nick vaguely remembers this, but then Bugs adds, 'of 
course they wasn't really brother and sister no more than a rabbit, but there 
was a lot of people didn't like it either way'. Bugs repeatedly stresses how 'awful 
good looking' the woman was, and how she looked enough like him to be 
twins'. Some have read this admiring comment (along with the description of 
Ad's face as 'queerly formed' and his lips as 'queer shaped') as a suggestion that 


8 4 

Woodcut from 
Joseph Moncure 
March, TheSet-Up 
(1931 edition). 

the two men may be lovers. 17 Less directly, like 
'The Light of the World', the story slides anx- 
iously between taboos - incest becomes homo- 
sexuality becomes miscegenation. 

Interracial fighting provided a dramatic sub- 
ject for many popular novels during this period, 
including Louis Hemon's Battling Malone, 
Pugiliste (1925), Alin Laubreaux's Mulatto Johnny 
(1931), and Joseph Moncure March's The Set-Up 
(1928). Starkly contrasting woodcuts depicting 
white and black fighters - whether expression- 
ist in style (The Set-Up) or vaguely cubist {Battling 
Malone) - provided vivid illustrations (illus. 84 
and illus. 85). 177 Joseph Moncure March's novels 
translated the exciting underbelly of twenties 
America into verse: The Wild Party deals with 
prohibition and The Set-Up with prize-fighting 
and the Jack Johnson story. The Set-Up's protag- 
onist Pansy is a middleweight who 'had the stuff, 
but his skin was brown; / And he never got a 
chance at the middleweight crown.' Finally, it 
seems, he will get a shot at the title, but then 'the 
brass-knuckled hand of the law / Hung a hot one 

on Pansy's jaw.' Pansy is charged with bigamy and serves five years in prison. 

When he gets out he gradually rebuilds his career and finally gets a fight with a 

white boxer called Sailor. It is a set-up (Pansy's meant to take a fall) but no one 

has told him, thinking he'll lose anyway. 

M ^3 



Clement Serveau, 
woodcut from Louis 
Hemon, Battling 
Malone, Pugiliste 


His face was blank; 

Grim in repose: 

And what he was thinking 

God only knows. 

Those lynx-like eyes, 

That skull without hair 

Gave him a savage, 

Menacing air. 

He made you think 

Of the missing link. 

He looked like something 

To catch and cage: 

Like something that belonged 

In a Jungle Age. 178 

After winning the fight, Pansy learns about the set-up. He tries to escape the 
gangsters but running away finds himself in the subway where he is hit by a 
train. In 1949 March's book was, loosely, to form the basis of a powerful film 
noir of the same title. The film changes many things, including the race of its 
protagonist. In 1928, however, stories of the Jungle Age were still popular. 

Another popular work which drew on the Johnson myth was Mae West's 
1930 novel, The Constant Sinner. It tells the story of a ruthless (yet not unappeal- 
ing) lady of pleasure', Babe Gordon, and her adventures in the New York of the 
1920s. One of the first things we learn about Babe is that, 'Every man she looked 
at she sized up as a fighter would an opponent.' 179 Her opponents are, first a 
white prizefighter, the Bearcat, then a black gangster, Money Johnson, and 
finally, an upper class white businessman, Baldwin. Babe's fighting talk seems 
to come easily to West, whose father was a boxer and who herself had affairs 
with numerous white and black fighters. 180 

What makes The Constant Sinner revealing of its time is not simply its box- 
ing figuration of the battle between the sexes but, more specifically, the way it 
uses boxing to talk about interracial sexual relations. Bearcat, dubbed 'the sal- 
vation of our race' by one female admirer, does not hold the colour line and is 
described fighting Harlem Joe who 'moved like a panther and endeared him- 
self to coloured worship by a famous watermelon grin'. 

The two contrasting bodies came to the ring centre, clasped gloves and 
received final instructions. The human throng pulled up taut and tense, 
to feast upon this supreme battle of black and white. The gong rang! 

The two bodies rushed at each other and became a whirlpool of 
stabbing, slashing arms, swirling like angry foam in boiling rapids, now 
white, now muddy black -a gush of red blood in the foam -the white 
form of Bearcat sank to the canvas. 

Babe, who has already 'ruined more than one promising white hope', eventually 
leaves Bearcat for Money Johnson and a Harlem which West describes as 'the 
pool of sex, where all colours are blended, all bloods mingled'. Johnson, whose 
'magnificent body, lynx-eyes, and pearly-white grin had brought the women of 
Harlem crawling to him', has eyes only for white Babe. Like his namesake Jack, 
'he craved white women. He wanted the whitest and most beautiful, and so he 
fell for Babe Gordon'. The novel ends with Johnson being shot by the jealous 
Baldwin and a gullible Bearcat agreeing to take the blame. He of course gets off 
(in what some have seen as a parody of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation) as the 
prosecutor argues that he was a hero for defending his wife against 'the low, 
lustful, black beast'. Baldwin's attraction to Babe is presented as entirely de- 
pendent on her association with Johnson. At the novel's end, when he finally 
has Babe (at least temporarily) he 'cannot avoid thinking of Babe's white body 
and Johnson's black body, darkness mating with dawn ... He has Babe now to 
himself. He is happy. But the black and white pattern is indelibly woven into 
the tapestry of his memory.' 181 

The sex appeal of Jack Johnson, and black men like him, is just one of many 
targets in Wallace Thurman's bitterly funny satire of the Harlem Renaissance, 
Infants of the Spring (1932). Lucille tells the protagonist, Ray, 'one of the black 
hopes of Negro literature', that she will 'never go to bed with any white man . . . 
because I'd never be sure that I wasn't doing it just because he was white'. In 
fact Lucille feels almost white herself, as she justifies her infatuation for a painter 
called Bull, 'the personification of what the newspaper headlines are pleased to 
call a burly Negro'. The women in his paintings have 'pugilistic biceps'. 'I sup- 
pose I find the same thing in Bull that white women claim to find in a man like 
Jack Johnson,' concedes Lucille, 'That's the price I pay, evidently, for becoming 
civilized.' 182 Ray is in love with Lucille and later 'snaps' that Bull 'is so afraid of 
the white man that his only recourse is to floor one at every opportunity and on 
any pretext'. Indeed when Bull finds out that Lucille is pregnant, his response 
is to 'sock her in the jaw, and stalk away'. Ray helps her to get an abortion and 
she promises to lay off 'virile men . . .at least . . .for the purpose of procreation'. 
Bull, she concedes, was simply 'an experiment I had to make'. 183 

Interracial fighting is again linked to interracial sex in William Faulkner's 
Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which explores the history and legacy of American 
slavery from 1807 until 1910, the year in which Johnson defeated Jeffries. The 
novel opens with the narrative of a survivor of the Civil War, Rosa Coldfield. 
Rosa's sister Ellen married Thomas Sutpen, a man of poor origins and great so- 
cial ambition, who has built a house in the woods with a group of 'wild Negroes'. 
Another of the novel's narrators, Mr. Compson, compares Sutpen's social 
awkwardness to that of John L. Sullivan 'having taught himself painfully and 
tediously to do the schottische, having drilled himself and drilled himself in 
secret until he now believed it no longer necessary to count the music's beat, 
say'. But having gone to great lengths to become the perfect Mississippi gentle- 
man, ensconced in 'baronial splendor', Sutpen tends to slip back into his old 

ways, 'some opposite of respectability' in which strict racial segregation does 
not play a part. Rosa tells the story of Ellen watching a fight in Sutpen's stables: 

Yes, Ellen and those two children alone in that house twelve miles from 
town, and down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the 
lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on the 
fourth, and in the centre two of the wild Negroes fighting, naked, not 
as white men fight, with rules and weapons, but as Negroes fight to 
hurt one another quick bad . . . 

Ellen, Rosa says, 'accepted' this - 'this', she thinks, 'is all'. But it is not all. One 
night she enters and sees 'not the two black beasts she had expected to see but 
instead a white one and a black one' - the 'grande finale'. What frightens her is 
not the fight but the fact that men are indistinguishable. 'Her husband and 
father of her children', a slave owner, cannot be told apart from the slaves, the 
'wild negroes' who 'belonged to him body and soul'. Rosa uses a kind of 
demonic Darwinian imagery to describe the fight scene that she has not wit- 
nessed. It becomes a primeval scene, as Rosa imagines Ellen witnessing the men 
with their 'teeth showing': 'both naked to the waist and gouging at one another's 
eyes as of they should not only have been the same color, but should have been 
covered in fur too'. And still that is not all. First, Ellen sees that her son Henry 
is watching, and then, what's much worse, that her daughter, Judith is also there. 
A final horror comes in the observation that the pattern of 'nigger and white' is 
repeated in 'Judith and . . . the negro girl beside her', Clytie (Sutpen's other 
daughter, by a slave mother) - 'two Sutpen faces'. Ellen's terror (certainly Rosa's) 
- that one cannot tell black from white, or sister from brother - becomes the 
novel's. The doubling of Sutpen and 'the wild niggers' ('his face exactly like the 
Negro's') is repeated in the doubling of Judith in Clytie; the intermingling of 
white and black bodies in a fight once again prefigures their sexual intermin- 
gling. 'There is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp 
and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which en- 
emies, as well as lovers know because it makes them both . . . let flesh touch with flesh, 
and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too.' 184 


If Jack Johnson's victories over white opponents exercised white America in var- 
ious ways, they also provoked those further afield. James Joyce, it is frequently 
asserted, didn't like sports, and especially not violent ones. Nevertheless, in 
1910, according to his brother, Stanislaus, he read the plethora of newspaper 
articles building up to the Johnson-Jeffries fight. Stanislaus suggests that Joyce's 
'ironical comments' on nationalism in 'that epock-marking event' formed 'a 
rough draft' of the Keogh-Bennett fight described in the 'Cyclops' section of 
Ulysses (1922). l8s Another source was a fight between a British soldier and a 

Dubliner that he saw advertised in the Freeman's Journal. 1 ^ 6 American racist 
ideology is thus echoed and refigured in British and Irish nationalist terms. 
The debts of the Harlem Renaissance to the Irish Renaissance are well docu- 
mented; this incident reveals that Irish literature also owes something to black 
America. 187 

The Keogh-Bennett fight is first alluded to in 'Lestrygonians', when Blazes 
Boylan is mentioned as the trainer of Keogh and a fight promoter. 188 It gets a 
proper airing, however, in 'Cyclops', when, at Barney Kiernan's pub in Little 
Britain Street, we learn that Boylan has made a hundred pounds by spreading 
the rumour that Keogh was 'on the beer'. 'Cyclops' is narrated by a nameless 
barfly, whose opinionated commentary is interrupted periodically by a series of 
extravagant parodies. One of the most exuberant parodies adopts the inflated 
language of early nineteenth-century fight reports, and from it we learn that 
the 'redcoat' has had his 'right eye nearly closed' by 'Dublin's pet lamb'. We im- 
mediately think of Ulysses and Polyphemus, and indeed, Heenan and Sayers, 
whose commemorative print Stephen Dedalus had seen earlier in the novel. 
Ignoring the attempts of Leopold Bloom to change the subject, another barfly, 
Alf Bergan notes, in a more up-to-date pugilistic jargon, that 'Myler dusted the 
floor with him . . . Heenan and Sayers was only a bloody fool to it. Handed him 
the mother and father of a beating.' 189 

Bloom's voice in 'Cyclops' is usually heard as one at war with the 'blindness' 
and aggressive masculine violence of racism and nationalism. Later in the scene, 
he famously rejects 'force, hatred, history, all that' in favour of love', 'the oppo- 
site of hatred'. This is generally taken to be Joyce's view as well. According to 
his brother, he wrote the scene 'not to express personal bias but to associate 
violence and brutality with patriotism'. While I do not wish to claim that Joyce 
is advocating violence, I suggest that the novel's repeated allusions to boxing 
do more than simply update Homer. A certain latent aggression is also ex- 
pressed. Just before he speaks out against force, Bloom tells the pub denizens 
that he too belongs to a race, 'that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very 
moment. This very instant', and while he speaks he nearly burns his fingers on 
his cigar. Unlike Ulysses, armed with his fiery club, Bloom does not get near the 
eye of his Cyclops. Nevertheless, he put[s] up his fist'. 'Talking about injustice' 
like this, the force of Bloom's feeling is expressed in staccato (punchy?) phrases 
and even single words, quite unlike his usual eloquent and loquacious speech: 

Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs 
to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by 
auction off in Morocco like slaves or cattle. 

Before talking about the 'opposite of hatred', the narrator tells us that Bloom 
'collapses all of a sudden, twisting around all the opposite, as limp as a wet rag'. 
But this second Bloom does not completely displace the first. Bloom may be 
finally seem a 'wet rag', advocating love as he runs away from a flying biscuit 


tin, but something remains of the man who raises his fist in angry defiance. 190 
How does one choose between two rather absurd cliches? 

As the day goes on, Bloom himself seems uncertain about what role in 
which to cast himself. 191 On the beach, at little later, he ponders the incident: 
'Got my own back there. Drunken ranters what I said about his God made him 
wince. Mistake to hit back. Or? No. Ought to go home and laugh at themselves 
. . . Suppose he hit me. Look at it other way round. Not so bad then. Perhaps not 
to hurt he meant.' In his conversations with Stephen in the cabshelter that night, 
Bloom continues to vacillate between self-congratulation on his cool and 
rational response, and anxiety about his lack of physicality. He tells the story of 
his encounter with the Citizen twice. In his first version he presents himself as 
'much injured but on the whole eventempered' and assures Stephen that 'A soft 
answer turns away wrath'. 

I resent violence or intolerance in any shape or form . . . It's a patent ab- 
surdity to hate people because they live around the corner and speak an- 
other vernacular, so to speak ... All those wretched quarrels, in his 
humble opinion, stirring up bad blood - bump of combativeness or 
gland of some kind, erroneously supposed to be about a punctilio of ho- 
nour and a flag - were very largely a question of the money question . . . 

This is partly said to reassure Stephen who has just survived a fight in 'Circe', but 
it is also serves as self-reassurance. Twenty pages later, the narrator returns to 
the subject, and gives it a rather different gloss: 

He, though often considerably misunderstood and the least pug- 
nacious of mortals, be it repeated, departed from his customary 
habit to give him (metaphorically) one in the gizzard though so far as 
politics themselves were concerned, he was only too conscious of the 
casualties inevitably resulting from propaganda and displays of 
mutual animosity and the misery and suffering it entailed as a fore- 
gone conclusion on fine young fellows, chiefly, destruction of the 
fittest, in a word. 192 

At the start of this retelling at least, Bloom is associated with linguistic pugnac- 
ity and the hard 'vernacular' of his enemy. As the sentence proceeds, the narra- 
tive voice reconnects Bloom to his customary pacifism and its accompanying 
verbosity. If the cliches of pugnacity give readers (metaphorically) 'one in the giz- 
zard', the cliches of pacifism put them (metaphorically) to sleep. 193 

Bloom's equivocal interpretation of the events in the pub is revealed again 
in 'Ithaca'. As tension mounted in the pub that afternoon, Bloom had started 
listing Jews: 'Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spin- 
oza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.' In his third 
list of 'anapocryphal illustrious sons of the law and children of a selected or 


rejected race' in 'Ithaca', Bloom again includes Mendelssohn and Spinoza, in- 
forming us of their professions (composer and philosopher respectively), but 
now he adds to their company Daniel Mendoza, the London pugilist credited 
with having introduced boxing into Ireland, and Ferdinand Lassalle, who, we are 
told, managed to combine the professions of 'reformer' and 'duellist'. 194 Fight- 
ers, it now seems, can be good Jews too. But this is not the last word on the sub- 
ject. At the end of the chapter, when Bloom relates his day to Molly in bed, he 
does not mention the 'altercation' in the pub at all. He has not, despite all these 
rehearsals, been able to settle on a version of events that pleases him, or, more 
to the point, that he thinks will please Molly. 195 

Bloom's aspirations to get bigger and stronger are largely informed by 
Eugen Sandow's Strength and How to Obtain It (1897). 196 Sandow was a music 
hall muscleman rather than a sports hero, and his books were aimed at commer- 
cial travellers and other city workers like Bloom. 197 They offered a modern met- 
ropolitan kind of manliness distinct from the archaic nationalist version touted 
by the Citizen. Yet Sandow's presence is not unrelated to themes of injustice, 
revenge, or, indeed, the Cyclops. While the first part of Sandow's book is a con- 
ventional manual of exercises and measurement charts, part two - 'Incidents of 
My Professional Career' - reads at times like a Horatio Alger novel, for each 'in- 
cident' is most importantly a step onward and upward. One step involves the 
'defeat' of two bodybuilding rivals, Samson and Cyclops. Sandow is at pains to 
stress that he is a small man and that 'in evening dress there was nothing . . . 
specially remarkable about my appearance. But when I took off my coat [to fight 
Cyclops] and the people could see my muscular development, the tone of indif- 
ference changed immediately to surprise and curiosity.' Sandow lets it be known 
that instead of exhibiting himself, he could have been a boxer. But although it 
would have been the 'shorter road to wealth', he was not tempted. 'No man', 
he concludes, 'can be a prize fighter and remain a gentleman'. 198 

Boxing, or at least street-fighting with pretensions to boxing, finally con- 
nects Stephen and Bloom in 'Circe', where Homer's underworld is refigured as 
a phantasmagoric vaudeville show. 'Nighttown' is a grotesque place where sex 
and violence come together, where a bawd sells 'maidenhead' for ten shillings 
and armless loiterers' in 'paintspeckled hats' can be found 'flop [ped] wrestling, 
growling in maimed sodden playfight.' 1 " Earlier in the day, the romantic 
Stephen had briefly identified with Heenan and Sayers performing before a star- 
ing audience in a print he saw in a shop window. In 'Nighttown', when a 
drunken British soldier hits him square in the face, he is suddenly forced to 
become a participant rather than a spectator. Could there be a more definite 
victory for what Joyce, elsewhere, praised as the solid materialism of 'sudden 
reality' over 'romanticism'? 200 

An important difference between the two encounters is that the heroic and 
popular mid-nineteenth century pugilism that the Heenan vs. Sayers fight 
represented has been replaced by Queensberry-rules sparring, associated par- 
ticularly with the army and with public schools - English violence disguised as 


English honour. According to Stanislaus Joyce, his brother 'detested rugby, box- 
ing and wrestling,' which he had to take part in at school, and 'which he consid- 
ered a training not in self-control, as the English pretend, but in violence and 
brutality.' 201 In Stephen Hero, Joyce had described the 'system of hardy brutal- 
ity' with which 'Anglo-Saxon educators' tried to 'cure' the 'fantastic ideal[ism]' 
of youth and had bemoaned the ugly 'Saxon slang' that accompanied such 
cures. 202 In 'Circe', the Saxon slang of 'biffing' and 'blighters', the basis of what 
Bernard Shaw had described as 'the vast propaganda of pugnacity in modern 
fiction', is as much the subject of mockery as the brutality itself. 203 

Like a good Homeric hero, Stephen drunkenly extends his hospitality to 
Privates Compton and Carr, the two red-coated British soldiers that he runs 
into on the street, stating that, although 'uninvited', they are his 'guests'. Nev- 
ertheless, that's not their fault. 'History is to blame'. Thinking that Stephen is 
insulting both Carr's girl, Cissy Caffrey ('faithful . . . although only a shilling 
whore') and Edward vn, Private Compton tells his friend to 'biff him one' - 'Go 
it, Harry. Do him one in the eye ... he doesn't half want a thick ear, the 
blighter.' 204 Stephen, meanwhile, 'a bit sprung' and so especially facetious, 
mocks 'the noble art of self-pretence', misquotes Swift, and rather effetely com- 
plains about his hand, which 'hurts me slightly'. 'Personally,' he says, 'I detest 
action.' That may be so, but, as his friend Lynch points out, 'he likes dialectic'. 
In the sequence that follows, Edward vn appears as the referee - 'We have come 
here to witness a clean straight fight and we heartily wish both men the best of 
good luck.' As the fight begins, Stephen imaginatively transforms it, using the 
traditional imagery of both cataclysm and crucifixion, into a grand and heroic 
battle. But Private Carr brings the battle to a swift and bathetic end. Carr 'rushes 
Stephen, fists outstretched, and strikes him in the face. Stephen totters, collapses, falls 
stunned. He lies prone, his face to the sky, his hat rolling to the wall. Bloomfollows and 
picks it up.' As in the Heenan-Sayers and the Keogh-Bennett fights, the crowd 
breaks through, and chaos descends, but there are no firm allegiances. The 'hag' 
and 'bawd' switch sides repeatedly; the 'quarrelling knot' of the Irish, it seems, 
are too busy fighting among themselves to be concerned with the slapstick 
main event. 205 

By the time we reach this scene in 'Circe', it becomes clear that a pattern is 
being presented. All things pass and, 'being humus the same returns', wrote 
Joyce in Finnegans Wake (1939). 2o6 In 'Wandering Rocks', Stephen sees an image 
of Heenan vs. Sayers in Farnborough in i860; a few pages later, Patrick Dignam 
sees a poster advertising Bennett vs. Keogh, and thinks about the 1897 Carson 
City contest between Corbett and Fitzsimmons. In 'Cyclops', the connection be- 
tween Farnborough in i860 and Dublin in 1904 is reinforced (and, if we read 
Stanislaus Joyce, we can also make a connection to Reno in 1910). These discrete 
boxing matches all feature a small man taking on a big man, and an Irishman 
(broadly defined) taking on a British man. 207 They also recall the battles faced re- 
peatedly by Ulysses on his journey home to Ithaca. Joyce's critics have, I would 
suggest, rather overplayed his rejection of such battles. Stanislaus Joyce recalled 


that his brother first encountered Homer through Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses 
and when 'asked to say which of the heroes they admired most', chose Ulysses 'in 
reaction against the general admiration of the heftier, muscle-bound dealers of 
Homeric blows'. Richard Ellmann, meanwhile, rather romantically maintained 
that 'Joyce makes his Ulysses a man who is not physically a fighter, but whose 
mind is unsubduable.' Ulysses, while certainly peace-loving, and neither 'hefty' 
nor 'muscle-bound', hardly avoided adept and well-placed 'Homeric blows'. 208 
Bloom, and indeed Stephen, are certainly less willing or able fighters, but this is 
not to say that thoughts of fighting do not preoccupy them and that their fists are 
never clenched or raised. While parodying its posturing and patois, Joyce rel- 
ished the dramatic possibilities of boxing. In all the many ways it unfolds, Ulysses 
is also, some of the time, a boxing novel. 

Boxing images come less directly in Finnegans Wake (as does everything 
else), yet one of Joyce's many allusive patterns there links back to Johnson. The 
opening chapter of the novel introduces the comic strip characters of Mutt and 
Jute, representing the battle of 1014 between the Irish and Danes on the field of 
Clontarf. Mutt is the Irishman; Jute, the invader. Communication between the 
two is impossible - Mutt is 'jeffmute', Jute is 'haudibble'. The duo reappear in 
many guises throughout the novel - Butt and Taff; Bett and Tipp; Muta and 
Juva - as variants on the quarrelling brothers, Shem and Shaun, whose endless 
battles and reconciliations propel it forward. As Muta puts it, 'when we shall 
have acquired unification we shall pass on to diversity and when we shall have 
passed on to diversity we shall have acquired the instinct to combat and when 
we shall have acquired the instinct of combat we shall pass back to the spirit of 
appeasement'. 209 

Mutt and Jeff originate in a cartoon strip by H. C. (Bud) Fisher which first 
appeared under the title 'A. Mutt' on the racing page of the San Francisco Chron- 
icle'm 1907. Mutt first encountered Jeff on 27 March 1908, a 'sacred moment in 
our cultural development' remarked Gilbert Seldes. The encounter took place 
'during the days before one of Jim Jeffries' fights'. 

It was as Mr Mutt passed the asylum walls that a strange creature 
confided to the air the notable remark that he himself was Jeffries . Mutt 
rescued the little gentleman and named him Jeff. In gratitude Jeff daily 
submits to indignities which might otherwise seem intolerable. 210 

Jeff's allegiance to Jeffries reached fruition in 1910 when he and Mutt resolve to 
see him fight Jack Johnson. Fisher devoted weeks of the strip to stories of the 
friends' mishaps as they travel to Reno, try to get seats, and then, with difficulty, 
try to get home again (illus. 86). 

Dan Schiff suggests that the pair may have appealed to James Augustine 
Joyce because their names, Augustus Mutt and James Jeffries, represent a strug- 
gle within his own name and between two sides of his personality. 211 But Joyce 
may also have enjoyed the comical contrast the couple made - beanpole Mutt 


1 l - <j>i la Ft - 3 *«> 

Bud Fisher, 'A. Mutt', 
lgio: ' Mutt secures 
a ticket to the 

and stocky little Jeff- and the physical violence of their encounters. The last panel 
was often reserved for a knockout. Jeff, having driven Mutt to distraction, is 
usually the recipient; he is depicted conked or punched in the head, sometimes 
accompanied by the word 'Powf A similar resolution can be found in the 'Night- 
lessons' chapter of Finnegans Wake. In this 'drame' of 'caricatures', Shaun (the 
Mutt of the two) becomes fed up with the boastful Shem, and 'floors' him. 212 The 
'countinghands' of a referee suggest that a knockout has been accomplished, and 
then go on to conduct Wagner. Shem forgives his 'bloater', and the chapter ends 
with a catalogue of topics for the brothers' lessons, which range from 'When is a 
Pun not a Pun?' to 'Do you approve of our Existing Parliamentary System?' to 
'Compare the fistic styles of Jimmy Wilde and Jack Sharkey.' 213 

The chapter takes the form of a central text, with marginal comments (from 
the two brothers) on either side, and footnotes (from their sister, Izzy). 214 In the 
final section, Shem (on the Right) is silent, but Shaun provides classical and 
biblical parallels to the lesson themes. Flyweight Jimmy Wilde and heavyweight 
Jack Sharkey are matched with Castor and Pollux, the brothers who encounter 
Amycus in Theocritus' Idylls. 215 The names of the fighters may change, but 
the schoolboy sport of light vs. large, and the philosophical sport of thesis vs. 
antithesis, continue. 'Is a game over? The game goes on.' 216 



Sport of the Future 

Although he had fulfilled the stated brief by defeating Jack Johnson, Jess Willard 
was not the Great White Hope that so many had longed for. 1 Willard was 
large, slow and uncharismatic, and the public did not warm to their new white 
champion. It would be another four years before the White Hope of fantasy 
would emerge, realized in the tanned wiry body of Jack Dempsey. The Golden 
Grin would be laid to rest by a scowl. 

Born into a poor Irish-American family in Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey 
was initially a fairly mediocre boxer, fighting for $100 a time in Western bars and 
living sporadically as a hobo. He struck lucky when he met up with manager 
Jack Kearns, who carefully groomed him for a shot at the championship. Kearns 
ensured that Dempsey only encountered opponents whom he could easily 
knock out, and that 'he spent nearly as much time making the rounds of 
newspaper offices as he did fighting'. Between them Kearns and promoter Tex 
Rickard carefully cultivated the image of the 'Manassa Mauler' as America's 
perfect fighting man'. 2 They knew that in the post-Johnson era (and even more 
so in the Klan-dominated twenties), there would be no money to be made in 
matching Dempsey against black opponents such as Harry Wills who might 
actually beat him. It made financial sense to maintain the colour line. 3 

By 1918 Damon Runyon, a syndicated columnist for the Hearst newspapers, 
was urging Willard to meet the new challenger. On 4 July 1919 (nine years after 
Johnson beat Jeffries), Dempsey fought Willard before 'a shirt-sleeved frontier mob' 
in Toledo, Ohio. 4 Willard was 6 foot 7 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds. 
Dempsey, 6 inches shorter and 55 pounds lighter, was definitely the underdog, and 
many thought the fight likely to be a poor affair. A sceptical Ring Lardner quipped: 
'I guess I got those there Toledo Blues, / About this fight I simply can't enthuse.' 5 

Nevertheless, Dempsey defeated Willard in three rounds, with what boxing 
historians agree was an extraordinary excess of violence. Peter Heller describes 
the fight as 'one of the most savage in boxing history', and Joyce Carol Oates ar- 
gues that Dempsey 's ring style, 'swift, pitiless, always direct and percussive . . . 
changed American boxing forever'. 6 According to Paul Gallico, Dempsey was 
'never a good boxer and had little or no defense. His protection was aggression.' 7 


That aggression was feted and fetishized from the start. 8 This is Damon Run- 
yon's gory account of the fallen Willard: 

At the feet of the gargantuan pugilist was a dark spot which was slowly 
widening on the brown canvas as it was replaced by the drip-drip-drip- 
drip of blood from the man's wounds. He was flecked with red from 
head to foot. The flesh on his enormous limbs shook like custard. He 
was like a man who had just been pulled from the wreck of an automo- 
bile, or railroad train. 9 

In his 1950 teach-yourself guide to 'explosive punching and aggressive defence', 
Championship Fighting, Dempsey himself recalled the fight, preferring to de- 
scribe Willard as the victim of 'a premature mine blast' rather than of a car or 
rail accident: 

I won the ring's most coveted title by stopping a man much larger and 
stronger than I was ... I blasted him into helplessness by exploding 
my body-weight against him . . . My body-weight was moving like light- 
ning, and I was exploding that weight terrifically against the giant. 10 

Dempsey 's persona was complicated. First of all, he was Jack the Giant Killer, 
an image that Kearns and Rickard were keen to exploit, matching him with an- 
other sluggish giant, Luis Angel Firpo, 'the Wild Bull of the Pampas', in 1923. But 
it was not merely success against all odds that Dempsey represented; it was the 
instant success of the knockout blow. The step-by-step rise of a Horatio Alger 
was old-fashioned; the impatient Twenties favoured the 'cocainizing punch'. 11 
And there was still more to the Dempsey image. In the passage above, he litters 
his description with metaphors drawn from his days working in the Colorado 
mines, and he was often promoted as a rugged Westerner. Kearns ensured he 
tanned his face and upper body before the Willard fight, to give him the appear- 
ance, according to Runyon, of a 'saddle-colored demon'. 12 In the years that 
followed this ruggedness was carefully cultivated. Runyon coined the name 
'Manassa Mauler', and ghost-wrote Dempsey 's biography, A Tale of Two Fists', 
for serialization in the Hearst papers in 1919. Runyon, who had also grown up in 
Colorado, made much of Dempsey 's early days free-riding the railroads. 13 When, 
in 1921, Dempsey knocked out the European light heavyweight champion, 
Georges Carpentier, the press described the victory as one for the frontier spirit 
(and old bare-knuckle days) against decadent European modernity (Carpentier, 
who liked to talk of the 'psychology of boxing', was dubbed the 'Orchid Man' 14 ). 
Gallico's characterization of Dempsey as someone who had been schooled in 'the 
hobo jungles, bar-rooms, and mining camps of the West' was typical: 

Where Dempsey learned to fight, there were no rounds, rest intervals, 
gloves, referees, or attending seconds. There are no draws and no 

decisions in rough and tough fighting. You had to win. If you lost you 
went to the hospital or to the undertaking parlor. 15 

Dempsey's supposed affinities with the spirit of the old frontier appealed to 
1920s urban America precisely because, as Roderick Nash puts it, at that time 
'the self-reliant rugged individual . . . seemed on the verge of becoming as irrel- 
evant as the covered wagon'. 

The major difference between American boxing before 1920 and after- 
wards, was that it was now legal, and once legal it became big business. At the 
heart of that business was Madison Square Garden, which in 1925 assumed its 
third incarnation on the corner of 49th and 50th Street on Eighth Avenue. 17 
When Max Schmeling arrived in the United States in 1929, he noted that 'the 
Garden and the Hearst Corporation took turns calling the shots'. 18 The Garden, 
as it quickly became known, was huge and intimidating. According to Jerry 
Doyle, the narrator of Hemingway's 1927 'Fifty Grand', the walk from the entrance 
to the ring looked like a half a mile'. 19 

This difference between small club illegal boxing and the new legal sport is 
strikingly apparent if we compare George Bellows 's Stag at Sharkey's (1909) and 
his 1920s paintings of legitimate, high-profile boxing, Ringside Seats (1924) and 
Dempsey and Fiq>o (1924). Gone is the grotesque male intimacy of spectators 
and fighters, and with it, a dark, expressionist claustrophobia. In their place, 
Bellows depicts a brightly lit space, vibrant with colour but rather flat. The 
paintings have more in common with contemporary magazine illustrations of 
well-dressed men and women than with his earlier paintings. Dempsey andtirpo 
presents the famous moment in their 1923 fight when Firpo sent Dempsey flying 
into the ringside typewriters (illus. 87). 2 ° 

The 1920s are often recalled as a golden age of sport, but it was an age of 
mass consumption rather than mass participation. Some thought that this was 
a very bad thing. In their 1929 sociological case study of Middletown, the Lynds 
noted that modern leisure was now 'mainly spent sitting down'. 21 A few play,' 
elaborated Stuart Chase, 'while the rest of us shout, clap hands . . . crush in our 
neighbours' hats, and get what thrill we may from passive rather than active 
participation.' For Chase, this was sport 'at one remove'. 22 

Worse still was listening to the radio ('sport at two removes'). While Jack 
Johnson's fights had been available to national audiences only by way of reports 
telegraphed to the newspapers, and illegal films, radio brought sport to all. Radio 
broadcasts of fights began in 1920 and the first title fight to be broadcast live on 
the radio was the 1921 Dempsey-Carpentier match. In Buenos Aires in 1923 
crowds gathered in the home of nine-year-old Julio Cortazar to listen to the radio 
describe Firpo's defeat in New York (afterwards, he later wrote, 'there was weep- 
ing and brutal indignation, followed by humiliated melancholy that was almost 
colonial'.) In anticipation of Dempsey's 1926 fight against Tunney, Halperin's 
Department Store acquired the first radio in Fitzgerald, Georgia; Lois Garrison 
recalls that 'the whole town' gathered to listen to speakers rigged up in the 

neighbouring streets. 23 Joe Louis grew up listening to Dempsey's fights on the 
radio, and the radio would bring Louis's fights to many more during the 1930s. 24 

The sports pages of national newspapers (first introduced by Hearst in 1895) 
also played an important part in promoting and popularizing sport. Research 
by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1929 revealed that one out of 
four readers bought a paper primarily because of its sports page. The editors 
voted Jack Dempsey the 'greatest stimulation to circulation in 20 years'. 25 The 
press, and in particular the Hearst newspapers, saw to it that 'you knew 
Dempsey better than a member of your own family'. 26 During his seven-year 
reign as champion, Dempsey entertained readers with a divorce and remarriage 
to a Hollywood starlet, and a trial for draft evasion (he was acquitted on the 
grounds that he needed to provide financial support to his mother and wife). 
Boxing itself played a relatively small part in the story; in seven years, Dempsey 
only defended his title six times. 27 

The flourishing of the sports pages is also associated with a golden age of 
American sports writing. In 1922, Nat Fleischer founded The Ring, still regarded 
as the leading boxing magazine, while the sports pages of the daily papers fea- 
tured writers such as Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and Paul Gallico, all of 
whom eventually moved successfully from (rather literary) sports reporting to 


George Bellows, 

Dempsey and Firpo, 


(rather sporty) fiction. Although they detailed the minutiae of contemporary 
sports events, these writers never took sport entirely seriously, and certainly 
not solemnly. This is Heywood Broun, on Dempsey vs. Carpentier: 

[Carpentier's] head was back and his eyes and his smile flamed as he 
crawled through the ropes. And he gave some curious flick to his 
bathrobe as he turned to meet the applause. Until that very moment we 
had been for Dempsey, but suddenly we found ourselves up on our feet 
making silly noises. We shouted 'Carpentier! Carpentier! Carpentier!' 
and forgot even to be ashamed of our pronunciation. 28 

Broun's report exemplifies what sociologist Leo Lowenthal identified as a dis- 
tinctive 1920s language of directness'. At the very moment when 'modern insti- 
tutions of mass communication' were promising 'total coverage', he argued, 
journalists increased their use of 'you' or 'we' to create a compensatory sense of 
intimacy between writer and reader. 29 Boxing, perhaps, lent itself more readily 
then most sports to the language of directness. In 1924, Punch cartoonist William 
Low suggested a comparable intimacy between fighter and spectator (illus. 56). 
Low's spectator takes 'sympathy' to absurd lengths and eventually knocks him- 
self out. Broun's article, more of which is quoted below, goes on to compare the 
Dempsey-Carpentier fight to Greek tragedy. Lowenthal claimed that such allu- 
sions were designed to confer 'pseudo-sanctity and pseudo-safety on the futile 
affairs of mass culture', and complained that they were mixed up with 'slang and 
colloquial speech'. 30 But this seems to miss the tone and the point. There is no 
'linguistic confusion'. Like flash language in the 1820s, prose such as Broun's (and 
Lardner's, Galileo's and Runyon's) confidently celebrates its ability to embrace 
both high and low and to make a joke of either or both. Knowing cheerfulness 
was the tone of the 'boxing scribes'. 31 

It was also, largely, the tone of the cinema. 'Suddenly the mid-1920's movie 
theater became a very happy place', notes William Everson. 'Comedy was every- 
where, and in all forms.' 32 Boxing movies were no exception and numerous come- 
dies debunked the masculine posturing of the ring. Hal Roach wrote and produced 
many of them, including The Champeen (1923), Laurel and Hardy's The Battle of 
the Century (1927), and Joe and Chubby's Boxing Gloves (1929); others include Mack 
Sennett's Scarum Much (1924). One of the most successful boxing comedies was an 
independently made series The Leather Pushers (1922-4), starring Reginald Denny, 
a former Royal Flying Corps heavyweight champion. Now largely forgotten, in 
the mid-twenties Denny was 'Universal's most important star, and next to Chap- 
lin, the highest-paid Englishman in pictures'. Denny was also responsible for in- 
troducing 'some comedy ideas' into what he called 'the hokum' of an adaptation 
of Jack London's boxing story, The Abysmal Brute (1923). 33 

For Paul Gallico, sports editor and columnist for the Daily News, the 1920s 
were a time of 'great, innocent ballyhoo', but for many others, particularly those on 
the left, the cocktail of sport, movies and the tabloid press made for a dangerous 


mass opiate. 34 Newspapers in the twenties, Robert K. Murray argued, moved 
away from the Progressive agenda of the pre-war years and 'began to view Amer- 
ican life not so much as a political and economic struggle but as a hilarious 
merry-go-round of sport, crime, and sex'. A growing obsession with 'the antics 
. . . of Dempsey and Babe Ruth' may, he suggested, have 'helped take the nation's 
mind off bolshevism', both at home and abroad. 35 'It was characteristic of the 
Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all', declared Scott Fitzgerald in 
1931. That same year (one of the worst of the Depression) Frederick Allen Lewis 
published a history of 'the Coolidge Prosperity' and argued that one of its most 
'striking characteristics . . . was the unparalleled rapidity and unanimity with 
which millions of men and women turned their attention, their talk, and their 
emotional interest upon a series of tremendous trifles - a heavyweight boxing- 
match, a murder trial, a new automobile, a transatlantic flight'. Lewis dubbed 
this era 'the Ballyhoo Years'. 36 

The changing nature of American newspapers and the celebrity cult of 
sportsmen and movie stars are recurring preoccupations in John Dos Passos's 
trilogy of novels, usa (1930-36). Each novel breaks up its narrative with a series 
of 'Newsreel' sections, collages of undated newspaper headlines, juxtaposed for 
connection and contrast. One such juxtaposition, in Nineteen Nineteen, involves 
Dempsey. There is something appalling, Dos Passos suggests, about the ease 
with which readers can slip from 'earthquake in italy devestates like war' 
to 'dempsey knocks out willard in third round'. 37 Dempsey himself, as 
we have already seen, was only too willing to compare the effects of his pugnac- 
ity to catastrophe on a grand scale. 

If the media attention given to Dempsey 's 1919 fight against Willard was 
lavish, it was nothing compared to that generated two years later, when he took 
on 'gorgeous' Georges Carpentier. The 4 July Jersey City fight attracted 80,000 
spectators and is remembered as the first million-dollar gate. The stark contrast 
between the two protagonists, arranged with great care once again by Rickard, 
succeeded in creating a journalistic frenzy. Carpentier agreed to the mis-match 
(he was considerably lighter than Dempsey) knowing that he could earn a lot in 
America - in Hollywood as well as in the ring. 38 Carpentier 's fan base included 
European intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett and 
Francois Mauriac. Shaw and Bennett had fulsomely described his 1919 victory 
over Englishman Joe Beckett, while Mauriac thought Carpentier both as 'one 
of those graceful Apollos slightly grazed by the pick in the process of their ex- 
humation' and 'the type of honest man dear to Pascal'. 39 Sophisticated New 
Yorkers were also enchanted by the Frenchman. Heywood Broun described the 
fight as 'the finest tragic performance in the lives of ninety thousand persons'. 
It was, he joshed, 'sport for art's sake', comparable even to the work of Eugene 
O'Neill, 'the white hope of the American drama'. 'None of the crowds in Greece 
who went to somewhat more beautiful stadia in search of Euripides ever saw 
the spirit of tragedy more truly presented.' 40 Ring Lardner was less sentimen- 
tal. He believed that the fight should never have taken place and satirized it 


ruthlessly in a short story called 'The Battle of the Century'. The Dempsey char- 
acter, Jim Dugan, complains about his training: 'I've got to show the boys I'm 
working so they won't think it's a farce. Like it wasn't a farce already!' The real 
winner, the narrator notes, was Dugan's manager Charley Riggs (based on Tex 
Rickard), who not only 'came out with a profit for himself and his backer of 
something like half a million . . . but the way he handled it put him in a class by 
himself as a promoter. The big fights to come will be staged by Charley or they 
won't be big fights.' 41 

After the 1923 Firpo contest, Dempsey did not fight for three years. Instead he 
went to Hollywood, travelled in Europe, and retained a high profile through the 
gossip columns and product endorsements. By 1926, however, it was time to make 
some more money, and Rickard's next 'big fight' matched Dempsey against Gene 
Tunney as part of Philadelphia's sesquicentennial celebration. Marketing was 
again a crucial factor, and in choosing Dempsey 's opponent, Rickard repeated the 
formula that had proved so profitable in the Carpentier fight. Dempsey was once 
again portrayed as the Western 'brute' and 'a slacker', while Tunney, a former us 
marine and aspiring Greenwich Village intellectual, was clean-living patriotism 
personified. The Associated Press made a great deal of the fact that Samuel But- 
ler's The Way of All Flesh had been spotted on Tunney 's bedside table. 42 The pub- 
lic personae of the two men were reinforced in their ring styles. Dempsey was an 
aggressive slugger, famous for his knockout blows; Tunney, a defensive counter- 
puncher, who gradually wore his opponents down. Dempsey was instinctual, a 
'natural', a born 'killer'; Tunney a 'synthetic' boxer, a student of 'ring science'. 43 
While this was a perennial opposition, its extraordinary success in 1926 suggests 
that it tapped into particular contemporary anxieties. While Tunney represented 
the middle-class ideal of self-improving and self-controlling masculinity (like Scott 
Fitzgerald's 'advertisement of the man'), Dempsey appealed to a persistent fantasy 
of untameable virility and independence. 44 

Dempsey was unfit and unprepared, but Rickard and his associates con- 
cealed this well from the public, who 'bet on the champion at preposterous 
odds'. 45 Tunney won the ten-round fight clearly on points, his defensive skills 
keeping Dempsey safely at a distance. Afterwards, Grantland Rice argued that 
the fight had not been a sporting contest but a 'Golden Fleece', and indeed the 
largest fight crowd in history (a crowd that included Chaplin, Hearst and vari- 
ous Astors, Mellons and Rockefellers) paid a record-breaking $1,895,733 for the 
privilege. 46 A rematch was inevitable, and in 1927, 145,000 spectators gathered 
at Soldier Fields, Chicago, in what would prove to be the culmination of Tex 
Rickard's career. 47 

When Dempsey fought Firpo in 1923, commentators were appalled by the 
way in which he stood over his prone opponent, ready to strike again as soon 
as Firpo rose to his feet. Although this was not allowed, the referee failed to 
intervene. New York boxing authorities then introduced a rule requiring the 
boxer who delivered the knockdown blow to go to a neutral corner prior to the 
referee beginning his ten-count. Many think this rule cost Dempsey his chance 


Joseph Webster 
Golinkin, The Long 
Count, 1927, 
lithograph on paper. 

at regaining the championship in his 1927 fight with Tunney, a fight which 
became known as the 'Long Count' (illus. 88). In the seventh round, Dempsey 
knocked Tunney down and stood over him ready to do the same again. The 
referee refused to begin the count until Dempsey retired to the farthest neutral 
corner, and by the time he reached nine, Tunney had recovered. 'Enough running. 
Come on and fight,' the frustrated Dempsey shouted, but Tunney managed to 
hold him off and win again, by a clear decision. 48 

Tunney was not a popular champion, partly because his defensive style was 
rather dull and partly because he was represented by the press as a snob who de- 
spised the average boxing fan. According to Sherwood Anderson, 'he was always 
a bit too patronizing about his trade'. 49 Tunney married a Connecticut socialite, 
delivered a course of lectures on Shakespeare at Yale, became a personal friend of 
Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder and, worst of all, dropped into conversation 


words such as 'ineffectual', 'hitherto' and 'cosmeticize'. 50 'His fastidious and 
abstracted air suggested that he had won the world championship on his way to 
acquiring a good library.' 51 In 1928, after suffering from amnesia following a blow 
to the head, he decided to retire from boxing. His decision was praised by the 
Journal of the American Medical Association in an influential article on the effects 
of repeated cerebral injury, or 'punch drunkenness'. 52 

Tunney famously took a trip to the Alps with Shaw, and Sherwood Anderson 
(a Dempsey fan) imagined them walking 'along the road together': 

One was thinking, 'Here am I, a man of the mind. I have a close friend 
who is a prize fighter. How wonderful! ' And there was the other think- 
ing, 'I am a prize fighter, but I am no brute. I am a man of the mind. My 
being with this writer proves it.' 

Anderson was eager to mock the mutual attraction of author and prize-fighter 
because he believed it originated in a false dichotomy. For Anderson, 'real' 
fighters, such as Dempsey and Jack Johnson, have 'better minds' than Tunney, 
and 'real' artists and writers are themselves men 'of action'. 

I have watched painters at work who were like fighters about to enter 
the prize ring . . . Thoughts and feelings elude like a fast opponent in 
the ring. You rush at your opponent - the mood. 'Oh, if I could only 
hit it squarely, send it sprawling!' 

If Anderson's account of painting recalls Hazlitt, his model of writing, or rather 
the more energetic activity of manual typing, develops that proposed by Jack 
London. Anderson recalls visiting 'a writer friend' for dinner. When he arrives, 
the man is lying on his bed, exhausted. 'He was as a prize fighter might have 
been after a marvelous fight.' Anderson reports that this 'bout' had taken place 
after the man 'had been working for two years trying to get just the feeling he 
wanted in a certain piece of work.' That morning, he had sat down at his type- 
writer and produced 12,000 words. While London had focused merely on the 
production of quantities of writing, Anderson wants to relate the nature of pro- 
duction ('hitting and hitting' at the typewriter) to the flawless quality of the 
product, the 'timing' of the sentences and the 'feeling' expressed in them. In ap- 
pearance, very different activities, fighting and writing end up looking exactly 
the same. 'Marvelous' writers don't need to hang out with 'marvelous' fighters; 
they are 'marvelous' fighters. 53 

Ernest Hemingway draws a similar conclusion in his 1926 'Banal Story' (al- 
though, unlike Anderson, he did not like Dempsey and believed Tunney, whose 
nose he once bloodied, to be 'one of the greatest of heavyweight champions'. 54 ) 
Hemingway's satire is directed against popular 'intellectual' magazines such as 
the Forum and the story parodies many articles that actually appeared in the mag- 
azine. 'Do we want big men - or do we want them cultured?' is one of the many 


'banal' questions that the writer-protagonist encounters in its pages. 'What star 
must our college students aim at? There is Jack Britton [a welterweight]. There 
is Doctor Henry Van Dyke [the clergyman author of inspirational stories]. Can 
we reconcile the two? Take the case of Young Stribling [a heavyweight].' The story 
ends with an account of the death and funeral of a bullfighter. In its attention to 
detail, and its lack of abstraction and posturing, this embedded story is not banal; 
in fact, it is a vignette that could easily have appeared in In Our Time. It is also a 
story that could only have been written by a man for whom there is no gulf be- 
tween sophistication and size, a man like the protagonist (and the author) who 
is as confident in his knowledge of boxing as he is in his ability to write collo- 
quial, immediate prose. 'Far away in Paris,' the narrator thinks, as he spits seeds 
from an orange, 'Mascart had knocked Danny Frush cuckoo in the second round 
. . . There was Romance.' 55 


After 1920, it became increasingly fashionable for women to attend boxing 
matches; Rickard actively encouraged their presence in his efforts to make box- 
ing mainstream entertainment. In 1889 Nellie Bly had reassured women read- 
ers about the 'daintiness' of John L. Sullivan's table linen and the cleanliness of 
his nails. But twenties readers were more interested in the boxer's face and 
figure. Cartoons depicted fighters receiving flowers and advertising hair cream 
(illus. 58, 92). Boxers were sex symbols and women were no longer coy about ad- 
mitting it. 'How women love - / The rituals of Dempsey and Carpentier,' noted 
Mina Loy in a poem, 'Perlun', published the month after 2,000 women were 
estimated to have attended the 1921 New Jersey fight. (H. L. Mencken com- 
plained that he had missed the preliminary bouts because he had been dis- 
tracted by a woman in a low-cut pink dress. 56 ) Gosta Adrian-Nilsson's 1926 
collage Bloo dy Boxing Debut juxtaposes images of Dempsey and Tunney with the 
words, 'Bloody', 'boxing debut', 'body' and 'a happy woman'. 57 

Women also began to write about boxers (if not boxing) for the daily 
papers. In 1914 Djuna Barnes reported on the phenomenon of women prize- 
fight spectators for the New York World magazine. At that time, she said that the 
main difference between male and female audiences was that when men looked 
at a boxer they noticed 'the muscles of his back', while women 'softly' praise his 
'fine eyes': 'the woman's interest lies not in strength but in beauty'. 58 Five years 
later, she interviewed Jess Willard and described him with a suitably aesthetic 
vocabulary: 'His head, having been overlooked by Sargent, is reproduced in 
every forest that cutters have been - that gravely solemn thing, the stump of 
some huge tree staring in blunt Rodinesque mutilation from the ground.' 59 By 
1921, when Barnes interviewed Jack Dempsey, it was no longer quite such a nov- 
elty to see women at boxing matches (illus. 89). She quotes Dempsey as saying, 
'It's no longer enough to have speed and a good right arm to be the favorite. You 
have to be good-looking, too, now that ladies go to the fights.' 60 Katharine 


Djuna Barnes, 
Dempsey, 1921 


Fullerton Gerould came to the same con- 
clusion. Her reactions to Dempsey 's 1926 
fight with Tunney, she admitted, were 
'only aesthetic and psychological'. 'I do 
not know what "happened"; or why Gene 
Tunney was able to beat Jack Dempsey. I 
keep unperturbed, my own deep sense of 
the spectacle'. Aesthetically Tunney did 
not appeal at all. His 'tall ugliness (as 
Henry James would have put it)' reminded 
her of a 'gasoline salesman'; fortunately, 
the 'ferocious face and beautiful body' of 
Dempsey 'suggested nothing but the great 
gladiator'. 61 Aesthetic contemplation of 
the statuesque male boxer often tipped 
over into (not always acknowledged) erotic 
excitement. Magazine illustrator Neysa 
McMein, for example, swooningly wrote 
of Carpentier that 'Michel Angelo would 
have fainted for joy with the beauty of his 
profile.' 62 All this emphasis on the boxer's head, profile, and 'fine eyes' conceals 
the fact that the men these women were looking at were standing before them 
bare-chested in shorts. Only Mae West was candid enough to write of the de- 
sire of 'soft' female bodies for the 'touch' of 'raw, irritated flesh which had been 
scraped on the ring ropes'. 63 

Colette's 1920 novel, Cheri, is the story of a pre-war love affair between a mid- 
dle-aged woman and a boy half her age. After observing Cheri's hand while he's 
asleep - 'a hand not strictly feminine, yet a trifle prettier than one could have 
wished' - and noticing how pale and exhausted he seems, Lea resolves to feed 
him up (on strawberries, cream, and corn-fed chicken), and to hire him a boxing 
coach, Patron. Patron, she tells the jealous Cheri, has 'nothing of the dissipated 
schoolboy' about him: 'He has other attractions, and a good deal more to rec- 
ommend him than a perky little face and two black rings round his eyes.' 64 
Shortly afterwards, Lea watches Patron instructing Cheri in a little woodland al- 
cove (a pastoral setting that recalls Cashel Byron's Profession): 

Lea smiled, and revelled in the warm sun, sitting still and watching 
the bouts between these two men, both young and both stripped. In 
her mind she kept comparing them. 'How handsome Patron is - as 
solid as a house! And the boy's shaping well. You don't find knees like 
his running about the streets every day of the week, or I'm no judge. 
His back, too, is . . . will be . . . marvellous . . . And the set of his head! 
quite a statue!' 


Later in the day, Lea discusses Cheri's progress with Patron. Patron praises the 
boy's physique: 'There's muscles on him now such as you don't see on our French 
lads; his are more like a coloured boy's - though he couldn't look any whiter, I 
must say. Nice little muscles they are, and not too showy. He'll never have mus- 
cles like melons.' She then embarrasses him by replying, 'I should hope not, Pa- 
tron! But then, you know, I didn't take him on for his boxing!' 65 Pugilistic sexual 
potency - often, as here, analogous to 'coloured' sexual potency - crops up in a 
variety of women's writing of the period. In Paris in 1930, the writer and pub- 
lisher Nancy Cunard saw off (or possibly exacerbated) rumours about her close 
friendship with the black fighter Bob Scanlon by claiming he was giving her 
boxing lessons. 66 

Boxers crop up as sex objects in the work of writers as diverse as Rosamund 
Lehmann, Jane Bowles and Zelda Fitzgerald. Lehmann's heroine in The Weather 
in the Streets (1936), recovering from a failed love affair, takes up with a 'very hand- 
some' boxer, Ed, whose powerful hands suggest 'magnetism' rather than 'comrade- 
ship' (and remind her of her ex). 67 In Jane Bowles's story, 'Going to Massachusetts', 
Janet tries to woo the feisty Sis, but Sis, 'full of fighting spirit', likes 'men who are 
champions. Like champion boxers' (especially when they're not in training). 
'Whiskey,' she demanded. 'The world loves drunks, but it despises perverts. 
Athletes and boxers drink when they're not in training. All the time.' 68 In Save Me 
the Waltz (1936), Zelda Fitzgerald detailed 'the post-war extravagance which sent 
. . . some sixty thousand . . . Americans wandering over the face of Europe'. When 
her protagonists, David and Alabama, arrive at the Hotel George-v in Paris, the 
bartender points out a Miss Dickie Axton, telling them, 'She'd been drinking in 
this bar the night she shot her lover in the Gare de l'Est.' We don't learn much 
more about Miss Axton, merely that 'her long legs struck forcefully forward as 
if she pressed her toes watchfully on the accelerator of the universe' and that 'peo- 
ple said she had slept with a Negro.' The bartender doesn't believe this. 'He didn't 
see where Miss Axton would have found the time between white gentlemen - 
pugilists, too, sometimes.' 69 

In his Autobiography, William Carlos Williams recalled a 1924 visit with his 
wife Floss to see the Hemingways' new baby. After supper, they go to a prize-fight. 

In the row in front of us . . . was Ogden Nash, upon whose back, when 
one of the fighters got bloodiest, Floss pounded as she screamed, "Kill 
him! Kill him!" to my horror and astonishment. Home by taxi early. 

Only a few pages earlier, Williams had distinguished men, 'the technical 
morons of the tribe', from women who 'remain sound even in debauchery'. No 
wonder the taxi came early. 70 

Numerous films from the 1920s and '30s draw on the sexual lure of the 
champion boxer for respectable girls. Most, however, rather moralistically 
demonstrate how pugilistic sex drive, as well as sex appeal, could break careers 
as well as hearts. Usually there is a clear distinction between good and bad 

women. In Love in the Ring (1930), Max Schmeling stars as a boxer who falls 
under the influence of a society woman and nearly loses an important fight. His 
childhood sweetheart sets him right. 71 In The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), 
Steve Morgan (Max Baer) wins the heart of Belle Mercer (Myrna Loy), a hard- 
working, sensible woman who is good for his career. She has 'a lot of mother' in 
her, but, she adds, 'a lot of woman too'. Belle and Steve marry but his roving 
eye and legions of fans soon lead to trouble. While Belle stays at home and lis- 
tens to his fights on the radio, brassy blondes ogle the 'Adonis of the Ring' from 
the front row. 'I wouldn't mind having him on a pedestal in my front yard', one 
whispers. 'I bet you're a good dancer,' she says later when she manages to get 
closer. Corrupted by such women, Steve seems destined to lose an important 
fight - until Belle intervenes in his corner. He says he wants to quit ('I'm tired 
of being a big shot. I just want you') but she forbids it. She's doing her 'job' as 
his wife; he must finish his and become champion. 72 

The prevalence of prize-fighters as sex symbols put pressure on men to act 
the part, and many comedies of the period exploit the gap between the boxer 
and the average guy. The bobbed heroine of the 1926 German film The Boxer's 
Bride becomes so obsessed with boxers that her fiance decides to pose as a fighter 
to win her affections. 73 A similar performance is undertaken by Alfred Butler, 
the hero of Buster Keaton's most successful silent film, Battling Butler (1926). 74 
(Martin Scorsese later claimed that Keaton was 'the only person who had the 
right attitude about boxing in movies'. 75 ) Battling Butler is about a wealthy fop 
whose father sends him to the mountains to 'rough it' and 'be a man'. Accompa- 
nied by his valet, Martin, Alfred Butler has no intention of roughing it. His camp- 
ing equipment consists of a brass bed, full silver service dinnerware, and three 
changes of clothes a day. Masculinity, we realize early on, is an elaborate mas- 
querade. Alfred falls in love with a local Mountain Girl (Sally O'Neil), but her 
brother and father reject his proposal of marriage until Martin tells them that Al- 
fred is actually 'Battling Butler', a champion boxer. Unfortunately the real Battling 
hears of this fraud and decides to humiliate the impostor by having him fight 
the Alabama Murderer'. Alfred is taken for training, and locks up his wife to 
keep her from seeing his disgrace. After much nervous pacing in the changing 
room, however, he finds that the real Battling Butler has already fought and won 
the bout. The play on which the film was based ended here, but Keaton realized 
that a movie audience would not put up with this: 'we couldn't promise 'em for 
seven reels that I was goin' to fight in the ring and then not fight. So we staged a 
fight in the dressing room with the guy ... and myself. And it worked out swell.' 76 
While the early sparring sessions consisted of familiar choreographed slapstick, 
in the final fight, Walter Kerr notes, Keaton 'suddenly seems no comedian at all': 

Without warning, he can take no more. He turns on his assailant . . . 
pounding him bloody against the walls of the small room, picking him 
up off the floor to batter him senseless again. 77 


Measuring Rudolph 

Valentino's biceps. 

If Keaton provided an unexpected Dempsey, an even less likely contender 
was Hollywood idol and 'catnip to women', Rudolph Valentino (illus. 90). 78 In 
1921 Valentino became friendly with Dempsey who was living in Hollywood, 
promoting the career of his actress wife, Estelle Taylor, and acting in a few films 
himself. Although Valentino was a keen sportsman and often sparred with 
Dempsey and other Hollywood friends, his image, forged by films such as The 
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Sheik (1921), was that of dancer 
and lover, roles, it seemed, that were neither properly manly nor properly Amer- 
ican. 'While we try to assure ourselves in this country', wrote Vera Caspary in 
1926, 'that dancing is as masculine as boxing and the dancer the physical peer 
of the fighter, we don't honestly believe it.' 79 


'Many a "Powder 
Puff'", advertise- 
ment for training 
bags, Everlast Boxing 
Record, 1926. 

c- p-ouibitititB nf 

JJ7S fk-«r rJ 

Valentino's later films are often more concerned with exploring and 
exploiting his star persona than in creating parts for him to act. For example, 
in Cobra (1925) he played an Italian count who had gone to America to escape 
women-trouble, but found himself accused of being an 'indoor sheik'. 
Dempsey helped him prepare for the knockdown punch with which he deci- 
sively answered the charge. The scene was to prove tragically prescient. The 
following year Valentino was deeply offended when a Chicago Tribune journal- 
ist dubbed him a 'pink powder puff' and claimed he represented a threat to 
'Homo Americanus'. 'Hollywood', the editorial stated, 'is a national school of 
masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener's boy, is the prototype of the Amer- 
ican male. Hell's bells. Oh, sugar.' Valentino responded with an open letter in 
a rival paper, challenging the journalist 'to meet me in the boxing . . . arena to 
prove in typical American fashion . . . which of us is more a man. I do not know 
how big you are but this challenge stands if you are as big as Jack Dempsey.' 80 
The journalist never responded, but Valentino would not let the matter drop. 
With Dempsey 's help, he staged a 'fight' with the sportswriter on the roof of a 
New York hotel. Valentino's opponent duly went down and the Evening] ournal 
ran a headline, 'powder puff? whami' The following month, Valentino was 
rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis and perforated gastric ulcers, the 
result, some claim, of all the boxing. Waking after surgery, his first words were 

reputedly, 'Did I behave like a pink pow- 
der puff or like a man?' After two weeks 
Valentino died, at the age of 31. Later that 
year, the annual Everlast Record Book pub- 
lished an advertisement for training bags 
with the text, 'Many a "Powder Puff" 
boxer developed a "kick like a mule's" that 
changed him to a "knockout artist"' (illus. 
91). According to John Dos Passos, 
Valentino's tragedy resulted from trying 
'to make good in he-man, two-fisted, 
bronco-busting, poker-playing, stock-jug- 
gling America'. After the actor's death, he 
noted, 'the champion himself [Dempsey] 
allowed himself to be quoted that the boy 
was fond of boxing and a great admirer of 
the champion.' 81 

The gap between movie star and 
pugilist was not, in fact, so big. While 
Valentino struggled to present himself a 
properly masculine American boxer - 'the 
Dempsey of the Nile', as Dorothy Parker 
quipped - the Manassa Mauler was told 
to get a Hollywood nose job. 82 After all, as 


hour daVtlop*/) ■ "Irhk lill* 
■ inutcV ikkl dLhnfftA bin ta a 
"kn*c)lfiWt ■Ulu"; m»Bjf m. Infiu] 
fjoeilc*Ld#r HBkraed ■ "loclt" <h*l 

kxini|tn1 nicra Iabi chimpiur ifthp. 

trirousfc lh» m» »l lh* E»srl«i 
TWaJai B»s. 

Almail fvr-ry (rvmriMuum in thr 
U. S. k»» on* or m»Ti £**r]*al Bug! 
twinging from ihr ceiling* Tnr gyn 
dirtcior fcnowi ikftE EvimIjiiI Bafi 

■ ti- nut Ilk*- •arAunmt-f " Mikd luga"; 

llutl EvrfUit R*m arc filled with < 

ip4£J*l muii ■EutTiMir fclmt inirijntlxpi 

24*. GSI ll II HE* NJLYbb. tulid pifend 

Xa. U la l.ti* Iraihsr h»f smO In IWR 




Hit Kuril City 



'Go easy this round, 
Basher; The Hair 
Cream Company 
is takin' 'is pitcher', 
cartoon in Punch, 
October 1935. 

John R. Turnis noted in 1929, both sportsmen and actors were primarily sales- 
men in a rapidly expanding entertainment commodity market (illus. 92). 

The modern pugilist is last of all a fighter. A lecturer, and endorser of 
belts, underwear, shaving cream and storage batteries he must be. 
An apt speaker on the radio, a handy man with his pen when con- 
tracts are being flourished, knowing in the art of publicity - these are 
the gifts which must be cultivated by the pugilist of today. As he will 
need to contest on average but one bout a year, his ability is of far less 
importance. 83 



In Germany in 1916, the painter George Grosz was certain that America repre- 
sented 'the future'. 84 It was not, however, the country itself that excited him so 
much as 'Americanism', which he later defined as 'a much used and much dis- 
cussed word for an advancement in technical civilization that was permeating 
the world under American leadership.' 85 By the time of the First World War, 
'American' had become almost synonymous for 'urban' and 'modern' through- 
out Europe. Wanda M. Corn describes how early twentieth-century European 
travellers to the United States, while dismissing its high culture as 'a pale imita- 
tion of their own . . . were fascinated by vaudeville, jazz, popular dances, comic 
books, movies, boxing, football and baseball, forms for which Europeans had 
few equivalents . . . they found them exotic and described them in great detail, 
often as if they were tribal rituals practiced by a strange barbarian race'. 86 

If 'American' translated into 'the urban', and 'the modern', 'boxing' increas- 
ingly featured as a synecdoche for all of these. This would have seemed absurd 
in, for example, the mid-nineteenth century, when prize-fighting was viewed as 
a lingering anachronism. But in the early twentieth century, boxers are fre- 
quently found in lists, assemblages, collages and films that claimed to repre- 
93 sent cities, Americanism or modernity. Apollinaire's summing up of the urban 

Guillaume modernity of Montparnasse in a series of twelve calligrammes included 'un ter- 

po inaire ribleboxeur' (illus. 93); William Ruttman's film, Berlin- The Symphony of a Great 

Un terrible boxeur v yj " _ ' / t / J 

from Montparnasse City (1927) cut between scenes of nightclub dancing and boxing matches as al- 

(1914)- ternative forms of evening entertainment; murals such as Anatol Shulkin's 

American Life (1934) and Thomas Hart 

T Benton's City Activities (1930) included 

boxing matches in their encapsulations of 
O am 'the city' or 'America'. 87 Shulkin places a 

JX_ ^j clinch between a black and a white fighter 

at the centre of a mural of crowded figures 



' |J/| V*\& an d scenes, including gangsters, strikers, 

acrobats, the trombone section of a jazz 

.- « band, a roller-coaster and collapsing sky- 

"^%Arfw¥ """ scrapers (illus. 94). Benton's mural focuses 

*** on the exaggerated, grotesque body in the 

3? city, and juxtaposes images of solitude in 

J* crowds - on the subway, watching dancers 

£« f *^ I + - with images of connection - kissing on 

j,. * *^? %• ^ <L a park bench and fighting in the spotlight 

,Jr " *4^ ff%M» of the boxing ring. 'How easy it is to slip / 

VC* ^U into the old mode, how hard to / cling 

^f\Jrl gkA firmly to the advance,' declared William 

J ^ V|| #' Carlos Williams in Spring and All (1923). 

*^ * The advance could come in many forms, 


but it must find itself 'freed from the handcuffs of "art"'. 'That is why', Williams 
maintained, 'boxing matches and / Chinese poems are the same'. 88 

America and Americanism were particularly on the minds of Germans in 
the Weimar republic (1919-32). While economists sought to emulate the suc- 
cesses of Henry Ford's production methods, the avant-garde embraced jazz, 
movies and sport, everything that had been denied them during the war years. 89 
But if Americans indulged in the trivialities of popular culture as a way of shrug- 
ging off serious matters, Germans took it all very seriously. To champion Amer- 
ican movies and sports stars was a way for many to assert their allegiance to 
modernity and to reject the nostalgic mode of much traditional German culture, 
which seemed mired in nature, nation and sentimental idealism. 90 'The stadium 
vanquishes the art museum,' declared Hannes Meyer in 1926, 'and bodily reality 
replaces beautiful illusion. Sport unifies the individual with the masses.' 91 The 
following year Herbert Jhering argued that 'the penetration of the English- 
American jargon of the sports dialect' would do a 'proper service to the German 
language', and through the language, the German people. 'High German, intel- 
lectualized and burdened with culture, has gained in imagery and activity from 
the speech of engineering and the inroads of sports. A different kind of person, 
a different way of expressing himself.' 92 In modern boxing's promise of 'a differ- 
ent kind of person' lay the reason why both the Left and the Right, both Brecht 
and Hitler, admired the sport. 93 

Boxing was also the favourite sport of Der Querschnitt, a journal founded by 
art dealer Alfred Flechtheim and edited by Hermann von Wedderkop. 'We con- 
sider it our duty', a 1921 editorial declared, 'to promote boxing in German artis- 
tic circles as has long been the case elsewhere. In Paris Braque, Derain, Dufy, 
Matisse, Picasso, and Rodin are all enthusiastic boxing fans.' 94 In 1926, Flechtheim 
noted contentedly that, 'the Sportpalast doesn't recruit its public from beer- 
deliverymen and drivers alone; - all of Berlin's fine society is there, princes and 
princesses, painters and sculptors, literati . . . and all the actors who aren't work- 
ing this evening.' 95 Flechtheim held regular soirees where members of the intelli- 
gentsia, including Heinrich Mann, Alfred Doblin, George Grosz, Rudolf Grossman, 
Willi Baumeister and Josef von Sternberg, could mingle with boxers such as Hans 
Breitenstrater, Paul Samson-Korner and Max Schmeling. These meetings were 


Anatol Shulkin, 

American Life, 1934. 



Willi Baumeister, 
from Sport und 
Maschine series, 
Querschnitt, 1929. 




Willi Batimdtier 

often productive. Baumeister's paintings of 'impersonal' athletes were frequently 
reproduced in Querschnitt (illus. 95), while Grossman's series of lithographs, 'The 
Boxer', was distributed together with Breitenstrater's autobiography. 96 Schmeling 
posed for numerous paintings and sculptures, including Rudolf Belling's bronze, 
which took pride of place at the Sport in Culture Exhibition in Berlin in May 1930. 
Ernst Krenek wrote an opera about him, Heavyweight: The Nation's Honour. 97 
George Grosz painted Schmeling's portrait, and the two men exchanged thoughts 
on their respective professions. Grosz concluded that 'the painter and the boxer 
have at least one characteristic in common: both have to see through someone 
who at first glance is a complete stranger to them. What sort of man is that, what 


does his life look like, what kind of character does he have. I have to provide a 
picture, you must anticipate a mode of fighting.' 98 

Max Schmeling had taken up boxing after seeing the film of Dempsey's fight 
against Carpentier ('I saw it practically every evening for a week', he recalled). He 
turned professional in 1924 and in 1928 became European light heavyweight 
champion after knocking out Mussolini's favourite, Michele Bonaglia, in what 
was heralded as 'a triumph of the democratic principle over fascist Italy', and in 
1930, the first modern non-American world champion, after fighting Jack 
Sharkey for Gene Tunney's vacant crown. Schmeling quickly realized that if he 
was going to get fights in the States, he needed an American manager and signed 
on with Joe Jacobs, a Hungarian Jew from New York. Their relationship was to 
cause Schmeling problems when Hitler came to power. He was none the less 
summoned to the Chancellory on several occasions and when he got married in 
1933, Hitler sent him a Japanese maple tree as a wedding present." 

By the late twenties, what Schmeling termed 'boxing fever' was widespread 
and his gym became a fashionable place for film people like Carola Neher and 
Leni Riefenstahl to exercise. Marlene Dietrich, it was reported, preferred to use her 
punching ball at home. 100 But of all those infected with a passion for the United 
States, and with prize-fighting, the most persistent was undoubtedly Bertolt 
Brecht. In 1920 he complained in his diary, 'how boring Germany is! It's a good 
average country, its pale colours and surfaces are beautiful, but what inhabitants!' 
'What's left?', he asked. America!' This sentiment was given a more melodramatic 
spin in a poem of the same year, 'Germany, You Blond Pale Creature': 

Oh! carrion land, misery hole! 

Shame strangles the remembrance of you 

And in the young men whom 

You have not ruined 

America awakens. 101 

According to Grosz, even Brecht 's suits were American, 'with padded shoulders 
and wedge-shaped trousers, a style no longer worn in America (but in Germany 
it made you look American).' 102 

A preoccupation with American city life informs much of Brecht 's mid-i920s 
writing, and boxing was both a tantalizing part of that life, one of the 'great myth- 
ical diversions of the giant cities on the other side of the herring pond', and a 
symbol of its decadent, dynamic, jungle-like struggles. 103 Man Equals Man (1925) 
was the first of his Berlin plays to be infused with both the ethos of sports and 
what was known as the 'Neue Sachlichkeit or New Matter-of-Factness. The term 
has been applied to a diverse group of writers and artists who wanted to record 
the modern Germany in a detached and direct way (illus. 96). For Brecht, sports- 
men epitomized the matter-of-fact, and no one more so than Jack Dempsey. As 
someone who eschewed science for knockout punches, Dempsey ('Tiger Jack, 
the Manassa Mauler') was Brecht's archetypal fighter, and indeed archetypal 



Conrad Felixmuller, 

The Booth Boxer, 


American. The 'further boxing distances itself from the k.o.,' Brecht wrote, 'the 
less it has anything to do with real sport. A fighter who cannot beat his oppo- 
nent into the ground hasn't, of course, really beaten him at all.' 104 Man Equals 
Man tells the story of a porter, Galy Gay, who is persuaded to take the place of 
Jeraiah Jip, a soldier and 'human fighting-machine'. Brecht used the phrase 
'human fighting-machine' on several occasions, and in his poem, 'Tablet to the 
Memory of 12 World Champions', noted that it originated in connection with 
Billy Papke, middleweight champion from 1908 to 1913. los The play was accom- 
panied by an interlude, 'The Elephant Calf which was to be performed in the the- 
atre foyer during the intermission and which ends with Gay offering to fight one 
of the soldiers 'straight away for eight rounds with the four-ounce gloves'. The 
final stage direction is All off to the fight'. As Franco Ruffini notes, this could be 
read as a description of where the play itself is headed. 106 

The 'objective' boxing match also provided a model for In the Jungle of 
Cities, which Brecht worked on between 1921 and 1924, when he moved to 


Berlin. Further boxing and American allusions were introduced before the 
play was published in 1927. Set in a mythical 1912 Chicago, strongly 
influenced by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the play presents a battle between 
Shlink, a rich merchant, and George Garga, a poor library employee (Brecht's 
note describes him as 'like A. Rimbaud in appearance. He is essentially a 
German translation into American from the French'.) Garga permits him- 
self to have opinions on the books he deals with; Schlink wants to buy that 
right; Garga refuses. Chicago is the 'ring' in which the fight takes place, and 
when, in scene 9, Garga thinks he has won 'a technical knockout', he con- 
cludes that 'Chicago has thrown in the towel' for Shlink. But there are still 
two more rounds to go. In scene ten, Garga dies; in scene eleven, Shlink 
heads off to take on New York. 107 In 1924 Brecht began writing about a myth- 
ical American Sodom and Gomorrah which he called Mahagonny. He started 
with songs about whisky, poker and Jack Dempsey, and eventually wrote a 
full-length opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), which in- 
cludes a boxing scene in which Trinity Moses and Joe box 'in time to the 
music'. 108 In 1927 the preparatory Mahagonny-Songspiel was staged in a box- 
ing ring in front of projections by Caspar Neher at the Baden-Baden music 

During this time Brecht became a good friend of the middleweight boxer 
Paul Samson-Korner and wrote several works about him. 109 Samson-Korner 
was famous for his 'no-nonsense and effective' boxing technique. Schmeling 
praised it as an American style', reliant on 'concentration, mercilessness and 
toughness'. 110 More importantly, for Brecht, Samson-Korner was 'un-Ger- 
man'. If Germans could learn to box with unfussy efficiency like Americans, 
perhaps, as Samson-Korner himself suggested, they could become more like 
Americans in other ways. Individual physical productivity might spark na- 
tional economic productivity. 111 

By the mid-i920s the cabaret revue had become the most popular form 
of entertainment in Berlin. Consisting of a large variety of fast-paced acts 
(including songs, dances and comedy), revues were thought to express the 
random juxtapositions and speed of modernity, its 'multiple interweaving 
of surfaces'. 112 Once again boxing was frequently included. Brecht's list of 
topics for a planned revue on Americanism in 1926 read: 'Record Girl, Smiling, 
Advertising, Boxing match, Revue, Tarzan, Sisday races, Slow Motion film, 
Business, radio.' 113 In 1922, the epitome of Americanism himself, Jack 
Dempsey, visited a Berlin revue where what the New York Times dubbed 
'pugilettes' fought 'in decollete fancy tights' (illus. 59). 114 Damon Runyon, 
who was also there, described one bout between 'a pretty sixteen-year-old 
girl and her older opponent.' He was amazed at 'the boxing skill and punching 
power displayed.' 

The young girl was outclassed for the first five rounds and was bleed- 
ing from the nose and mouth. The Americans thought it was a shame 


that the bout was continued, when Jack Kearns sent Louie Meyer, one 
of our group here who speaks German, to the young girl's corner and 
told her to try a left hand body punch. 

When the last round started the young girl staggered into her cor- 
ner and let fly, according to Kearns's instructions. She knocked her 
opponent cold. 

Dempsey thought the rounds were too long for girls, that their 
bodies were insufficiently protected and really disliked the entire 
business. 115 

Altogether the idol of Weimar Berlin found its excesses a little shocking. 'The 
people were friendly and gave me a fine reception, but as for the vice there, I 
wouldn't have believed there was anything like it in the world.' 116 

Those pursuing Americanism in Berlin always felt themselves a step be- 
hind what was going on in Paris, and there were other important differences 
between the two cities. Berliners looked to America to save them from economic 
and spiritual crisis, but, as Gramsci noted, Parisians treated Americanism 
merely as 'a form of make-up, a superficial foreign fashion'. 117 Indeed, for many 
Americans, 'cosmopolitan Paris was what America ought to be.' 118 

Boxing had been introduced to French culture in the early nineteenth cen- 
tury through an Anglophile sporting society (that included Gericault), and until 
the late nineteenth century, it was always advertised as la boxe anglaise to distin- 
guish it from the French version (also known as la savate). In George Du Maurier's 
1894 novel, Trilby, a group of young English artists devote part of each day to 
boxing in their Paris studio. Particularly adept at the sport is a large Yorkshire- 
man called Taffy who has a 'mighty forearm' with muscles 'strong as iron bands' 
and biceps that 'equalled Mr Sandow's', and who only missed the charge at Bal- 
aklava because he had sprained his ankle playing leap-frog in the trenches. Taffy 
constitutes a kind of benchmark of traditional Anglo-Saxon masculinity against 
which the novel's other men are measured. A visitor from Oxford, for example, 
initially seems impressive because he has longer whiskers than Taffy, but then 
we learn that 'the mere sight of a boxing glove made him feel sick'. Taffy's biceps 
are no mere ornaments. Du Maurier builds them up for the specific purpose of 
slapping the evil Jewish interloper Svengali and swinging him by his nose. After- 
wards, 'he had, for hours, the feel of that long, thick, shapely Hebrew nose being 
kneaded between his gloved fingers'. In bohemian Paris, where sexual and racial 
confusion reign, Taffy is the epitome of blue-eyed Englishness. 119 

Boxing is also an English sport for Marcel Proust, for whom one of the 
meanings of Englishness was sex. Boxers are sexual predators, but more often 
sexual objects, offering aristocrats what Claude Menieur describes as the charm 
of 'amours declasses'. 120 In In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the Marquis 
de Saint-Loup encounters some young girls by the beach whom he takes 'for 
the mistresses of racing cyclists or prize-fighters'; in Sodom and Gomorrah, the 
Baron de Charlus admires a man whose face expresses 'a delicacy which touches 


our hearts, a grace, a natural gentleness such as men do not possess' but is 'dis- 
mayed to learn that this young man runs after boxers'. In The Captive, we learn 
that the Baron 'confused his ruling passion with friendship, which does not 
resemble it in the least, and the athletes of Praxiteles with obliging boxers'. 121 

In the early years of the twentieth century, the United States took over from 
England as the centre of international boxing. In 1907, French dandies still 
'strove to turn themselves into Englishmen', but by 1909, due to 'the advent of 
the Yankee boxers', 'everyone' was American. Paris, 'to make use of a cliche, 
went berserk', observed amateur pugilist and proto-Dadaist Arthur Cravan. 122 
'We had heard a good deal of American boxers, long before we had even set eyes 
on one,' recalled Georges Carpentier, 'The reverence in which we held them was 
next to sacrilegious, for they appeared as gods on the fistic firmament.' By 1912, 
the gods were walking the streets of Paris, and 'the American invasion' was 'in 
full swing'. 'Boxing tournaments were attracting bigger and bigger audiences,' 
Carpentier wrote, 'and even the most famous American boxing champions did 
not hesitate to pack their trunks and set off for Paris'. 123 (Later, Carpentier was 
to characterize his own new 'French style of boxing' as 'English science blended 
with American ruggedness.' 124 ) The First World War brought more Americans 
to Europe, and in its aftermath, 'the old continent began to resound with the 
mis-pronounced names of American boxers'. 125 

An interest in boxing extended into many unlikely quarters. Colette wrote 
fight reports for Le Matin, Jean Cocteau managed middleweight Al Brown and 
rhapsodized about his 'active poetry' and its 'mysterious syntax', while artists 
as diverse as Picasso, Man Ray, Miro, Masson, Bonnard and Braque attended 
fights and sparred in their studios. 126 In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Humbert 
Humbert recalls his Parisian marriage to Valeria: 'We had quite a few cozy 
evenings together, she deep in her Paris-Soir, I working at a rickety table. We 
went to movies, bicycle races and boxing matches.' 127 

For some Parisians, the appeal of boxing lay in its association with primi- 
tivism and black culture. By the outbreak of war in 1914, what some called 'ne- 
grophilia', and Apollinaire dubbed 'melanophilia', was well established; after 
1920, it blossomed into 'melanomania'. 128 The black aesthetic was encapsulated 
in two figures, the male boxer and the female dancer, and one or other tended 
to be evoked in most discussions of African or black American art. Sometimes 
the two figures became interchangeable. Josephine Baker opened at the Revue 
Negre in 1925 and immediately captivated the city. One critic praised the revue 
as 'rousing the tired public ... to thrills and madness as otherwise only a box- 
ing match can do', while Paul Colin, whose lithographs of Baker were published 
in 1927 as Le tumulte noir, described his first impressions of her as 'part rubber 
woman, part female tarzan' and 'part boxing kangaroo'. In 1931 Baker was filmed 
singing her hit/a/ deux amours, mon Pays et Paris as she crouched in the corner 
of a boxing ring. 129 

Black boxers also played a part in evocations of modernist primitivism. 
When, for example, Apollinaire lectured on African art at Paul Guillaume's 


gallery, Max Jacob described the event as the art dealer's 'Boxing School'. 130 
While pre-war fighters such as Sam McVea, Joe Jeanette and, of course, Jack 
Johnson were much admired, the 'male Josephine Baker' was 'Panama' Al Brown 
(illus. 122). 131 Brown tried to establish a career as a bantamweight in Harlem in 
the early 1920s but finding few lucrative matches in the strictly segregated post- 
Jack-Johnson era, he moved to Paris in 1926. There he established himself as a 
successful fighter and man about town (illus. 60). Sponsored by Jean Cocteau 
(who briefly acted as his manager) he was a glamorous figure, often seen driv- 
ing fast cars and drinking champagne in the city's most fashionable cafes. 
Brown's most controversial contest took place in 1931, when he agreed to par- 
ticipate in a gala with French champion Roger Simende in order to raise funds 
for the Dakar-Djibouti mission, an expedition to Farica to document African 
civilization and collect artefacts for Paris 's newly remodelled museum of ethnog- 
raphy and anthropology. Held in the Cirque d'Hiver before an audience which 
included Cocteau, Georges Bataille, Raymond Roussel and Michel Leiris, the 
boxing exhibition was a great success, raising over 100,000 francs. The mission 
finally resulted 'in the collection of approximately 3,500 objects at Trocadero, 
the annotation and transcription of 30 African dialects, and the assembly of 
6,000 photographs, 1,600 metres of film, and scores of documents for the re- 
modelled museum.' 132 The new museum (in 1937 it became the Musee de 
l'Homme) was intended to move anthropology away from an emphasis on race 
and biology and toward the comparative study of different cultures. For some, 
the boxing gala indicates the incomplete nature of this shift. Many who attended 
viewed the fight not simply as a fund-raiser but as a primitive ritual itself 
worthy of anthropological study. 'The black man who fought that night', argues 
Jean Jamin 'prefigured the "objets negres" that, two years later, the exhibition 
would bring back from the land of his ancestors'. 133 

Many black American boxers followed Brown across the Atlantic in search 
of work. The experience of one is the subject of Gwendolyn Bennett's short story 
'Wedding Day', published in the Harlem journal Fire! in 1926. The story was 
loosely based on the life of Georgia-born Eugene Bullard, who travelled around 
the world working as a boxer before settling in Paris in 1913 at the age of nine- 
teen. Along with Bob Scanlon, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion when 
war broke out. After the Armistice he married Marcelle de Straumann, the 
daughter of a French countess. The wedding guests included 'outstanding 
people in all walks of life and colours and religions'. 'I felt as if I were back 
in the Foreign Legion,' said Bullard, 'where there is no prejudice and everybody 
appreciates everybody else just for himself as a human being'. 134 The boxer in 
Bennett's story does not fall in love with a French countess but with a white 
American prostitute. On the day they are due to marry, she sends him a letter 
saying that she '"just couldn't go through with it", white women just don't marry 
colored men.' 135 Bennett's substitution of an American for a Frenchwoman 
seems intended to show up the difference in the treatment of blacks in the two 
countries. That 'the separate, individual black-skinned man' received better 


treatment in France than anywhere else in Europe or America was widely held 
as axiomatic, as Claude McKay reported to the Soviet Congress in 1922. 

The black intelligensia of America looks upon France as the most cul- 
tured nation in the world; the single great country where all citizens 
enjoy equal rights before the law, without respect to race or skin color. 

McKay's scepticism about such beliefs becomes clear in the following sentence 
where he notes that this individual 'good treatment' is 'valued so highly by 
Negroes that they are beginning to forget about the vile exploitation of Africans 
by the French'. For McKay, the limits of French justice were revealed by what 
he called 'the scandalous story of Siki and Carpentier'. 136 

Born in 1897 in the port of St Louis, Senegal (then called French West 
Africa), Baye Phal moved to France as a teenager. There he began to fight 
professionally as Battling Siki, and in 1914, he enlisted in the French army, 
where he earned both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. 137 
When Siki fought Georges Carpentier for the light heavyweight champi- 
onship on 24 September 1922 - the first million franc gate - he was the first 
black fighter to contest a championship for seven years. 138 After the first 
round, a relaxed Carpentier told his manager, 'I'll get him when I want to', 
but the script was disrupted by 'tough slowthinker' Siki and 'his mauling 
style'; in the sixth round, after a series of 'fearful, fast, hammering blows', 
Siki knocked the Frenchman out. 139 At this point, as Lincoln Steffens re- 
ported in the New York Evening Journal, sport ended, and 'as usual, business 
butted in'. 14 ° Claiming that Siki had tripped Carpentier, the referee dis- 
qualified him, but the crowd was furious, and so the judges, fearing a riot, 
reversed the decision. The 'applause of the crowd', recalled Bob Scanlon, 
'was like a dozen machine-guns rattling'. 141 A few days later, Carpentier's 
manager appealed unsuccessfully. The French and American press revived 
the racism of the Johnson era with gusto. Newspapers dubbed Siki 'Champi- 
onzee' and Siki's manager told the New York Times that 'Siki has something 
in him which is not human. A long time ago I used to think that if one could 
find an intelligent Gorilla and teach him to box, one would have the world's 
champion. Well, that's what I found in Siki.' 142 'This kind of thing hurts me,' 
the boxer responded, 'I was never anywhere but a big city in all my life. I've 
never even seen a jungle.' After his victory, Siki became a Parisian celebrity, 
walking the streets dressed in spats, a frock coat and a monocle, with a lion 
on a leash, and drinking absinthe in the best cafes. Fashionable women had 
his silhouette painted on their arms. But Siki's moment of glory was short. 
His boxing career floundered, and in 1925, he was found shot dead on the 
street in Hell's Kitchen, New York; seemingly because of a bad debt. Until 
the body was identified, the police reported another 'nigger corpse'. 143 

'The Carpentier-Siki fight was a story, a good play,' wrote Lincoln Steffens, 
and for him, it was a story about Carpentier's defeat rather than Siki's victory. 


'Man put to the test, and almost always failing' was, for Steffens, the constant 
story of 'business, reform, and polities'. In particular, it reminded him of the 
peace conferences. In 1922, the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, 'a treaty of 
peace that was full of war', were still being discussed in conferences in Genoa, 
The Hague and Lausanne. 144 For Claude McKay, the Siki-Carpentier fight told 
a rather different political story. Among those present at ringside was Blaise Di- 
agne, representing Senegal as the first black deputy in the French National As- 
sembly. The previous year he had attended Paris 's second All-African Congress, 
chaired by W.E.B. Du Bois. At the first Congress in 1919, Diagne (who co-chaired 
the event with Du Bois) had spoken against the Pan Africanism of Du Bois 
and Marcus Garvey, arguing that French Africans were treated equally to French 
citizens of European origin. In 1921, he walked out of the Congress rejecting its 
separatist agenda. But the events surrounding the Siki-Carpentier fight, were, 
McKay noted gleefully, a 'slap' to the 'black conservative deputy'. 'It is incon- 
ceivable', Diagne said after the fight, 'that Siki could be deprived of his victory 
simply because he is black.' 'The white man refused to accept the idea that the 
black man can be equal to him physically or spiritually.' 145 


Throughout the 1920s Parisian boxing was supported by the presence of a large 
white American expatriate community, and as David Trotter argues, they were 
as much a community of Americanists as Americans, living an image' that was 
already well-established. 146 Most famous of the expatriate fight-goers was un- 
doubtedly Ernest Hemingway, who, it seemed sparred with everyone and any- 
one, and even occasionally with professional fighters for ten francs a round. In 
1922, one of his regular partners, Henry Strater, painted him in a grey sweat- 
shirt and dubbed the work the 'boxer portrait'. 147 In 1929, another expatriate, 
Morley Callaghan, knocked him down and the two men fell out for good. Ac- 
cording to Callaghan, after the event, Hemingway sadly confessed, 'my writing 
is nothing. My boxing is everything.' 148 

Hemingway's habit of discussing the writers he would like to 'beat' to be- 
come 'champ' has become notorious, and, as will become apparent in future 
chapters, every writer who wants to acknowledge his influence, does so in sim- 
ilar terms. 149 Those he wrote about in his 1949 letter to Charles Scribner (Tur- 
genev, Maupassant, and Tolstoy, who he was still 'squaring up to') were dead, 
but during his time in Paris, Hemingway was not averse to a real or rhetorical 
punch up with the living, with Pound, Miro and indeed pretty much anyone 
else willing to raise their fists in his presence. 150 Hemingway was obsessed with 
the way that champions succeeded one another, and strongly believed that once 
a great champ had lost his crown, there was no reclaiming it. When he was 
young and promising, this provided a useful metaphor for literary succession. 
The great writers of yesterday, he constantly maintained, like the great fighters, 
must give way to the new. In 1924 he complained to Pound that the authors 


Ford Madox Ford was selecting for transatlantic review were the literary equiva- 
lents of Jim Jeffries, dragged out of retirement for one last fight. 'The thing to do 
with Ford is to kill him ... I am fond of Ford. This ain't personal. It's literary.' 151 

Hemingway's teachers, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, were also 
literary equivalents of Jeffries, ripe for the symbolic kill. They had done their 
work and could be admired as former champions, as long, of course, as they ad- 
mitted their day was over. If they continued to want to compete, some drastic 
Oedipal action was needed. In 1926, before publishing The Torrents of Spring, a 
ruthless Anderson satire, he wrote to his friend justifying the book (his 'attempt 
to sock on the jaw'). If the letter opens with pugilistic brio, it soon becomes anx- 
iously convoluted: 'You see I feel that if among ourselves we have to pull our 
punches, if when a man like yourself who can write very great things writes 
something that seems to me, (who have never written anything great but am 
anyway a fellow craftsman) rotten, I ought to tell you so.' 152 Anderson's reply 
continued the metaphor. 'Come out of it, man. I pack a little wallop myself. I've 
been middleweight champion myself. You seem to forget that . . . Did you ever 
hear of Kid McAllister - the nonpareil - that was me'. 153 Judy Jo Small and 
Michael Reynolds argue that this exchange of letters (which did not stop there) 
'played a crucial role in shaping Hemingway's "The Killers" where a doomed 
heavyweight fighter named Ole Andreson resignedly faces the inevitable.' 154 
Hemingway's break with Gertrude Stein came a little later, when in their mem- 
oirs of the twenties, each accused the other of stealing ideas. Hemingway said 
that Stein 'only gave real loyalty to people who were inferior to her'. Of course, 
he added, 'I always loved her very much and . . . never counter-punched when 
she left herself wide open.' 155 

In 1937 Wyndham Lewis recalled meeting Hemingway at his first visit to Ezra 
Pound's studio in Paris, 'a great change from the dark Kensington quarters': 

Having found his abode, I rang the bell. A great deal of noise was to be 
heard but no one answered: therefore I pushed open the door, which 
opened practically into the studio. A spendidly built young man, 
stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white, was standing 
not far from me. He was tall, handsome, and serene, and was repelling 
with his boxing gloves a hectic assault of Ezra's. After a final swing at the 
dazzling solar plexus Pound fell back upon his settee. The young man 
was Hemingway. 156 

To Lewis, Hemingway is a statue - 'dazzling white' and 'serene', and lacking 
in mobility. This is fairly inoffensive, but three years earlier, Lewis had depicted 
Hemingway as the quintessential 'dumb ox', an 'enthusiastic amateur of rude, 
crude, naked force in men and women'. 157 To Hemingway, such an attack could 
only be read (as indeed it was intended) as an attempt at a knockout blow, and, 
30 years later, he responded in suitably pugilistic style with a rival account of the 
scene in Pound's studio. Chapter Twelve of A Moveable Feast is about Ezra 


Pound, 'always a good friend'. Two of its four-and-a-half-pages, however, are de- 
voted to an attack on Lewis. Hemingway begins with an account of teaching 
Pound to box and how he 'tried to make him look as good as possible'. Then 
Lewis enters and the insults begin to fly. First of all, Lewis's appearance gets a 
thorough battering: he looks 'like a character in the quarter', wears 'the uni- 
form of the pre-war artist', and has a face like a frog; 'not a bullfrog' even, but 
'just any frog'. A heavier punch follows - Lewis was 'hoping to see Ezra hurt' - 
and then Hemingway finishes off the assault by highlighting his metaphor. 'I 
watched Lewis carefully without seeming to look at him, as you do when you 
are boxing'. The sentence then concludes with its knockout blow, 'and I do not 
think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man'. 158 

It was Pound, however, who was the primary target of Lewis's satire in 1937. 
By boxing a man who looks like a statue in his own studio, Pound, Lewis suggests, 
was trying to be both aesthete and man of action, that is, 'violently American'. 
Lewis goes on: 

The 'tough guy' that has made Hemingway famous, and the 'strenuous- 
ness' of him of the Big Stick, are modes of the American ethos with 
which Pound is perfectly in tune ... He exercises a sort of tribal attrac- 
tion for his fellow-countrymen, over and above the effect of the glamour 
of the poetic genius. 

Both 'the glamour of poetic genius' and the masculine posturing of boxing are 
merely forms of performance, and that is why, Lewis concludes, Pound is 'in 
his element' when performing. 159 In 'Patria Mia' (1913), Pound had been equally 
scathing of the '"school of virility"' which 'seems to imagine that man is differ- 
entiated from the lower animals by possession of the phallus' and whose work 
'reads like a Sandow booklet', and the Swinburnean 'gorgeous school', whose 
aim is 'to name as many constellations and to encumber them with as many 
polysyllabic adjectives as possible'. 160 Lewis, of course, wants to associate Pound 
with both these cliched schools - swooning Kensington aestheticism, an d vulgar 
American-in-Paris virility - and to imply that he's not much good at either. 

Lewis had first associated Americanism with pugilistic ambition in his 1917 
short story, A Soldier of Humour', collected in The Wild Body (1927). There the 
narrator, Ker-Orr, 'a large blond clown, ever so vaguely reminiscent (in person) 
of William Blake, and some great American boxer whose name I forget', con- 
fronts a Frenchman who is trying to pass as an American in a railway dining car. 

I fully expected to be forced to fight my way out of the salle a manger, 
and was wondering whether his pugilistic methods would be those of 
Chicago or Toulouse . . . But I had laid him out quite flat. My answer to 
his final apostrophe was a blow below the belt: I was following it up by 
vanishing from the ring altogether . . . l61 


The manifestations of boxing metaphors in this passage are symptomatic. For 
Ker-Orr - whose presence as protagonist and narrator links the stories gath- 
ered in The Wild Body - is, in the relentless efficiency of his wildness, the closest 
Lewis came to describing himself as a thoroughly modern pugilist-aesthete. 
What is at issue in these stories is the protagonist-narrator's professional iden- 


tity.162 j n ftl as ii n g an( j Bomhardiering, Lewis's description of Pound's studi 
comes at the end of a passage reflecting on amateurism and professionalism in 
writing, and these issues feed into the later scene. In moving from London to 
Paris, Lewis suggested, Pound was not only trying to be American and mascu- 
line like Hemingway, he was also emulating Hemingway's air of professional- 
ism. 163 But such issues had preoccupied Pound for many years. In 'A Retrospect' 
(1918), he rejected the opposition of amateur and professional in favour of one 
between amateur and expert. 'It is certain that the present chaos will endure,' 
he wrote, 'until the Art of poetry has been punched down the amateur gullet, 
until there is a general understanding that poetry is an art and not a pastime; 
such a knowledge of technique; of technique of surface and technique of con- 
tent, that the amateurs will cease to try to drown out the masters.' 164 

'Punching' also featured in a 1912 letter that Pound wrote to Harriet Mon- 
roe, editor of Poetry, urging her to persevere with the magazine: 'we're in such 
a beautiful position to save the public's soul by punching its face that it seems 
a crime not to do so'. 165 What distinguished the expert (poet or boxer) from the 
amateur was not simply a willingness to throw punches, but the dedicated study 
of technique. Pound had developed this point in 'On Technique' (1911). The 
essay begins by bemoaning the absence of an interest in technique among mod- 
ern poets and contrasts this with the keen technical knowledge and interest dis- 
played by a boxing audience. Pound imagines 'a contest between Jack Johnson 
and the surviving "White Hope"', a contest with a great deal of money staked on 
it. The sporting crowd, Pound notes, would not want impressionistic 'character 
studies', but 'details' using precise technical terms such as left-lead' and 
'counter'. 166 In later years, Pound was less inclined to suggest that poetry should 
be 'punched' in the face or down the gullet of the public, but he did retain a 
sufficient interest in boxers to be able to refer to them freely in a variety of con- 
texts. Jack Dempsey is mentioned a couple of times: his comments on reading 
are included in a discussion of 'tastes' in abc of Reading, and a g.i. song which 
rhymes 'Dempsey 's mitts' with 'great big tits' is alluded to in The Pisan Can- 
tos. 161 In 1941, Pound wrote to a colleague about the phrase 'the water-bug's mit- 
tens', which he was eventually to use in a late Canto. 'If I were 30 years younger,' 
he said, 'I would call 'em his boxing gloves.' 168 

In 1911, the same year that Pound was pondering technique, his protege-to- 
be, T. S. Eliot, returned to Harvard after a year in Paris, bringing with him all 
sorts of European affectations. He carried a cane, hung a Gauguin Crucifixion on 
his wall, embraced the elan vital of Henri Bergson and began taking boxing les- 
sons. Conrad Aiken recalled that these lessons took place 'at a toughish gymna- 
sium in Boston's South End, where, under the tutelage of an ex-pugilist with some 


such monicker as Steve O'Donnell, he learned the rudiments of boxing, but also, 
as he put it, "how to swarm with passion up a rope" - his delight in this attain- 
ment was manifest.' 169 Steve O'Donnell had fought Peter Jackson in the 1880s, 
and performed exhibition bouts with James Corbett in 1890s, before taking on 
the job as Harvard University's 'Physical Culture and Boxing Instructor'. 170 Aiken 
plays down the institutional affiliation to imply that Eliot is dangerously slum- 
ming, but for worthwhile aesthetic effects. Aiken recalled Eliot arriving late one 
day for their regular post-boxing meal bearing 'a magnificent black eye, a shiner 
that did Steve great credit; it was really iridescent'. 'You will see me any morning 
in the park / Reading the comics and the sporting page,' remarks the 'self-pos- 
sessed' speaker of the second section of Eliot's 1910 poem, 'Portrait of a Lady'. 171 
That reading bore fruit in many ways. 172 Eliot thought of Sweeney, for example, 
as a 'man who in younger days was perhaps a professional pugilist, mildly suc- 
cessful; who then grew older and retired to keep a pub.' 173 

After the war, such Ivy League dandyish pugilism came in for much mock- 
ery, and not only from Pound and Lewis. In John Dos Passos's Nineteen Nineteen 
(1932), Blake Wigglesworth (known as Ned) is a Harvard aesthete who burns 
incense in front of his Buddha and finds everything except drinking boring; 
'whenever politics or the war or anything like that came up he had a way of clos- 
ing his eyes and throwing back his head and saying Blahblahblahblah.' The only 
time he comes to life is when he tells the story of an evening out with Barney, 'a 
boxing instructor, if he didn't have a weak heart he'd be welter-weight cham- 
pion of New England'. Hearing of all this, Ned's roommate, the politicized Dick 
Savage, 'felt like smashing him in the face'. 174 The most fervent attacks on Ivy 
League sportsmen were, however, reserved, for those who did more than dabble 
in athleticism. The most damning of these would be Scott Fitzgerald's portrait 
in The Great Gatsby of Yale football star, Tom Buchanan, whose 'cruel body' and 
dodgy politics result in tragedy. 175 

Technique, and professionalism, as Lewis had noted, were also a central pre- 
occupation of Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises (1926) begins with a description of 
Robert Cohn's amateur boxing skills (developed at Princeton and now exercised 
in the gymnasiums of Paris) and we soon learn to equate this with his dilettante 
dabbling in literature. Cohn has published a novel with 'a fairly good publisher' 
and Jake notes that 'it was not really such a bad novel as the critics later called it, 
although it was a very poor novel'. Now he is stuck on his second novel. Cohn is 
contrasted first with Jake himself, a journalist who is at his happiest after 'a good 
morning's work', and then with Bill Gorton, who has 'made a lot of money on his 
last book and was going to make a lot more'. Gorton arrives in Paris from New 
York where he has seen 'a whole crop of great light heavyweights. Any one of 
them was a good prospect to grow up, put on weight and trim Dempsey'. The 
suggestion is that Gorton is himself a literary contender, although his experience 
of crooked prize-fighting in Vienna reminds us that how impure the profession 
of boxing (and perhaps the profession of writing) really is. Much 'cleaner', from 
Jake's point of view, is bullfighting. Bullfighting is aligned to boxing -Jake describes 


a bull having 'a left and a right just like a boxer' - but, at its best, it is free from 
the corruption that has tainted the more modern sport. Pedro Romero, the only 
completely admirable character is the novel, represents the true artist. His 'work' 
(neither he nor Jake call it 'sport' or 'art' or 'craft') is characterized by its 'sincer- 
ity' (he does not 'simulate') and its 'absolute purity of line'. 'It was not brilliant 
bull-fighting', Jake says, 'it was only perfect bull-fighting.' But true art can only 
exist in what Jake characterizes as the primitive culture of Spain; elsewhere, all 
that fighters or writers can do is try to work 'hard' and 'clean'. 176 

A debate between amateurism and professionalism - in sport and in art - 
is enacted again in Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1934), the story of Dick 
Diver, a young psychiatrist who abandons his professional codes of behaviour 
when he marries a young and beautiful patient. 177 The book is full of fights; 
fights for honour, and fights for nothing. Dick is contemptuous of a young Eng- 
lishman who tells him 'a preposterous story about a boxing match with his best 
friend, in which they loved and bruised each other for an hour, always with great 
reserve.' 178 Suffering from what he only partly humorously diagnoses as 'non- 
combatant's shell-shock', Dick sees pointless conflict everywhere. It is impossi- 
ble even to cash a cheque without running into the 'heavyweight champion of 
the world'. After failing to escape Europe and his fate, Dick finds himself in 
Rome, drunk and in a 'mock fight' of 'padded, glancing blows' with a taxi driver 
and then, unfortunately, a policeman. When he returns home, his colleagues 
discuss his bruises, speculating on his 'debauch' and his alibi of 'boxing on the 
trans-Atlantic trip. The American passengers box a lot on those transatlantic 
ships.' 179 But the fight that the crossing of the ocean represents is no sport. 
Dick's surname, Diver, as many have noted, evokes his deeper and deeper 
plunges into despair. It might also evoke what he has done in leaving America 
and marrying the wealthy Nicole. The marriage, he believes, has meant the end 
of his professional life. In order to save her, he has thrown his own fight; in box- 
ing jargon, he has taken the money and taken a dive. 180 


In the early twentieth century, the language of boxing provided experimental 
artists with metaphors for talking about a range of issues from forceful assertion 
to formal control, from the status of the individual character to the stance of an 
audience or reader. Boxing represented dialectic; the primitive; controlled and 
released energy; the moving body; and the body-as-machine. Just as impor- 
tantly, it was not feminine and not sentimental and not refined. Best of all, the 
boxing match, increasingly epitomized by the knockout blow, was instantly de- 
structive. In all these different ways, boxing was modern. 

A good place to start is with Futurism, which, as Marinetti proclaimed, was 
an 'aesthetic of violence and blood' - an aesthetic, as many have pointed out, 
drawn from a mish-mash of Social Darwinian and Nietzschean ideas. This is 
point three of the 'Initial Manifesto of Futurism' (1909): 


Literature has hitherto glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy and 
sleep; we shall extol aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, the dou- 
ble quick step, the somersault, the box on the ear, the fisticuff. 181 

In the years that followed, Marinetti and others presented 'the box on the ear' 
in a wide variety of settings. The 1917 film Vita Futurista, for example, included 
a scene of Marinetti and Ungari boxing before breakfast, while one of Marinetti 
and Masnata's 1933 'radio syntheses', 'Drama of Distance', juxtaposed eleven 
seconds of a variety of sounds including a military march, a tango, road noise 
and a boxing match. 182 Futurism was the latest in a long line of movements 
which evoked the language of boxing in an attempt to be modern and to over- 
throw academicism; what was new was an emphasis on dynamism and a vision 
of the body as a fusion of the organic and technological. In its celebration of the 
efficient machine and rejection of the 'maternal ditch', futurism also embraced 
Nietzsche's anti-feminism. 

Before long, the pugnacious tone of Marinetti's statements infected the lan- 
guage of Futurism's admirers throughout Europe, from the Russian Cubo-Futur- 
ists who proposed a 'Slap in the Face of Public Taste', to D. H. Lawrence, who 
welcomed the 'revolt against beastly sentiment', to Mussolini, who reputedly de- 
scribed punching as 'an exquisitely fascist means of self-expression'. 183 Less por- 
tentous, but significant at the time, was a 1914 London brouhaha in which T. E. 
Hulme came to the defence of the sculptor, Jacob Epstein, against an attack by 
the Nietzschean art critic, Anthony Ludovici. 'The most appropriate means of 
dealing with [Ludovici]', Hulme wrote, 'would be a little personal violence.' 184 
The letters pages of The New Age were soon filled with suggestions on how this 
might be enacted. A defender of Ludovici suggested that he might employ 'a 
pugilist of Jack Johnson's size' to present his case, then Hulme could take him 
on. Wyndham Lewis then entered the fray, arguing that Johnson would prefer 
to fight for Hulme and Epstein's 'secular gods'. 185 

But there was more to the Futurist (and Vorticist) evocation of boxing than 
simply the assertion of masculine aggression against convention and sentiment. 
Much of their language was drawn from Nietzsche's pronouncements about the 
importance of opposition for progress and the need for self-assertion through 
action rather than contemplation, and his quasi-thermodynamic theories about 
discharging energy. For Nietzsche and his diverse followers, art derived from 'a 
compulsion and urge to get rid of the exuberance of inner tension through mus- 
cular activity and movements of all kinds'. 18 

Movement of all kinds attracted the Futurists. 'We have lost the ability to 
understand the life of the motionless statue,' declared the Russian poet Vadim 
Shersheevich in the foreword to his 1916 collection of poems, Automobile Gait, 
'but the movement of cholera bacilli at the time of an epidemic is comprehen- 
sible and fascinating to us.' 187 In 1928, the Italian painter Aligi Sassu, responding 
to the call for 'dynamism and muscular reform' in painting, declared that 'the 
dynamic body is a fantastic creation of the artistic spirit'. And if painting needed 


dynamized musculature, where better to find it than sports? 188 Sassu's early 
paintings feature the mechanized dynamism of cycle and motor races, and the 
human equivalent in boxing matches. (Not much earlier, George Bellows, a 
painter coming from a very different tradition, declared, 'I didn't paint 
anatomy; I painted action.' 189 ) What 'dinamismo' entails in paintings such as 
Sassu's Pugilatori (1929) is the breaking up of form into parts (not dissimilar to 
cubist representations of the body), but then an attempt to suggest that those 
parts move at such high speeds as to make their boundaries indistinguishable 
(illus. 61). Total dynamism, a 1928 Italian manifesto suggested, would lead to 
the 'annihilation' of the body itself. Since human bodies (unlike automobiles) 
could not reach the speeds required for total dynamism, the form of the body 
remains in (a suitably Nietzschean) tension with its movement. Futurist paint- 
ings of boxers and cyclists recall Muybridge's photographic sequences. 

Primitivist notions of ritualized fighting and ego-less selves are among the 
topics explored in the work of the Austrian novelist, and a rather different 
reader of Nietzsche, Robert Musil. The eponymous Man without Qualities, 
who we later learn is called Ulrich, is first described gazing out of his window 
with the air of 'a sick man who shrinks from every strong physical need'. Yet, 
immediately afterwards Ulrich crosses the room and hits a punch bag 'with a 
hard, sudden blow that seemed not exactly in keeping with moods of resigna- 
tion or conditions of weakness'. Throughout the novel, Ulrich's actions suggest 
various habits, manners or characteristics, but none serve to define him. A few 
chapters later, Ulrich attempts to fight 'three louts' in the streets. 'He resisted 
the idea that the three faces suddenly glaring at him out of the night with rage 
and scorn were simply after his money, but chose to see them as a spontaneous 
materialization of free-floating hostility.' In a cinematic confusion of knees, 
skulls and 'fists growing larger all the time', he is knocked out. The next day 
he is found by a woman who offers to take him somewhere for help. In the taxi, 
he offers her 'a lively defense of his experience'. Aware that 'the doings of the 
body . . . were really too much in fashion', the meditative Ulrich first proposes 

The fascination of such a fight . . . was the rare chance it offered in civil- 
ian life to perform so many varied, vigorous, yet precisely coordinated 
movements in response to barely perceptible signals at a speed that 
made conscious thought impossible ... at the moment of action . . . 
muscles and nerves leap and fence with the T; but this T - the whole 
body, the soul, the will, the central and entire person as legally distin- 
guished from all others - is swept along by his muscles and nerves like 
Europa riding the Bull. 

Ulrich moves from a notion of 'the fight' as one in which two men confront each 
other to one in which the conscious self, the T, is pitted in a losing battle against 
the instinctual body (a mere collection of nerves and muscles). He goes on: 


Basically . . . this experience of almost total ecstasy or transcendence of 
the conscious mind is akin to experiences now lost but known in the 
past to the mystics of all religions, which makes it a kind of contempo- 
rary substitute for an eternal human need. Even if it is not a very good 
substitute it is better than nothing, and boxing or similar kinds of 
sports that organize this principle into a rational system are therefore 
a species of theology, although one cannot expect this to be generally 
understood as yet. 19 ° 

The mystical transcendence of the body described here recalls the paintings of 
Musil's near-contemporary, Egon Schiele. Schiele's 1913 portrait of a fighter pres- 
ents his awkward contorted body in a manner that evokes religious or perhaps 
erotic martyrdom (illus. 97). In the 1913 Vienna of Musil's novel, however, a Vi- 
enna charged with 'vague atmospheric hostility', Ulrich soon moves on to other 
versions of theology. 191 

The interest of Futurist boxing images did not lie only in the permanence, or 
otherwise, of the self, but in the self's relation to another. What are the boundaries 
between one self and another? What happens when one body almost merges with 
another? For Wyndham Lewis, Futurism, which entailed a 'dispersal' of energy, 
could not answer this question; in its place, he proposed the idea of the Vortex, 
which compressed and retained energy. In his satirical 1930s description of 
Hemingway and Pound quoted above, Hemingway is a statue and the action 
between the two men is slow and stagey. In 1914, in the first issue of the Vorticist 
journal, Blast, Lewis describes boxing rather differently. This is 'The New Egos', 
one of twelve 'Vortices and Notes': 'According to the most approved contemporary 
methods in boxing, two men burrow into each other, and after an infinitude of 
little intimate pommels, one collapses.' 192 Here Lewis contrasts the contemporary 
method with the 'old style' of boxing, one in which 'two distinct, heroic figures 
were confronted, and one ninepin tried to knock the other ninepin over', an image 
which recalls his definition of the 'comic type' as 'a failure of a considerable energy, 
an imitation and standardizing of the self, suggesting the existence of a uniform 
humanity, - creating, that is, a little host as alike as ninepins; instead of one 
synthetic and various ego'.' 193 The modern style of boxing - which involved the 
protagonists 'burrowing into each other' - was not comic and 'static', but rather 
grotesque, dynamic and symptomatic of a wider modern phenomenon. 'We all to- 
day,' Lewis wrote, '(possibly with a coldness reminiscent of the insect world) are 
in each other's vitals - overlap, intersect, and are Siamese to any extent.' A 
'uniform humanity' of comic ninepins gives way to 'dehumanization' ('the chief 
Diagnostic of the Modern World'): 'the isolated figure of most ancient Art is an 
anachronism'. The body becomes instead something that exists in multiple and 
fluid forms, 'overlapping, intersecting' in the perpetual dynamism of insect-like 
dances, fights and sex. 194 Lewis's 1914 painting Combat No. 3, in which a pair of 
insect-like antagonists is transformed through combat into a Vorticist machine, 
might almost be an illustration for this passage (illus 98). 195 


Wyndham Lewis, 
Combat No. 3, 1914. 

In 1927, Lewis returned to boxing imagery and 'the religion of merging' in his 
meditations on the 'history of the ego', or rather 'the extinction of the "thinking 
subject"', and the rise, in its place, of the modern 'romance of action'. In both 
narratives, Lewis evokes Jack Dempsey. First Dempsey appears as one of the 
beneficiaries, and victims, of Schopenhauer's 'aimless' Will. It is the 'nonsensical' 
Will, says Lewis, that has produced 'Charlie Chaplin, the League of Nations, wire- 
less, feminism, Rockefeller'. 

It causes, daily, millions of women to drift in front of, and swarm inside, 
gigantic clothes-shops in every great capital, buying silk-underclothing, 
cloche-hats, perfumes, vanishing cream, vanity-bags and furs; it causes 
the Prince of Wales to become one day a Druid, and the next a Boy- 
Scout; it enables Dempsey to hit Firpo on the nose, or Gene Tunney to 
strike Dempsey in the eye, and the sun to be eclipsed. 196 


Egon Schiele, 

The Fighter, 1913. 

The endless and random nature of such events makes what Lewis elsewhere calls 
the 'gospel of action' seem particularly ridiculous. Men of action, like Dempsey, 
live only 'in the moment, in moods of undiluted sensationalism'. How can their 
behaviour be applicable to any other field of human behaviour? 

If you applied the conditions and standards required for the flowering 


of a Jack Dempsey to a Beethoven, say, you would be doing what is done 
in a more general and less defined sense on all hands at this moment, 
as a thousand different activities mystically coalesce in response to the 
religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing. 197 

While passages like this seem to warn against the coming of fascism and its body 
culture, when Lewis talks of the threat of 'mystical mass-doctrines', his target is 
rather mass democracy's 'religion of merging', and its attendant consumer and 
entertainment culture; the world as a 'gigantic clothes-shop' in which the 'gentle- 
manly Robot' Tunney arbitrarily succeeds Dempsey as the hero of the day. 198 


In 1925 Adrienne Monnier, who ran an avant-garde bookshop in Paris, attended 
a concert in which the American composer George Antheil played his Ballet 
Mecanique for the first time. In imagery that drew on her trips to the fights 
with her partner, Sylvia Beach, and their friend, Ernest Hemingway, she described 
his performance: 

When he plays his music he is terrible, he boxes with the piano; he rid- 
dles it with blows and perseveres furiously until the instrument, the 
public, and he himself are knocked out. When he is finished he is red, 
he sponges his forehead; he comes down from the ring with his fore- 
head lowered, his shoulders rocking, his brows knitted, his fists still 
clenched tight. 199 

'Boxing with the piano', which Monnier describes as an intense physical engage- 
ment, was a way of making the instrument sound less lyrical and more percus- 
sive and mechanical. There is an antagonism, and we are to believe, productive 
exchange of energy, between pianist and piano, just as there may be between 
poet and typewriter. Sounding more mechanical, in this sense, also seemed to be 
a way of sounding more modern. 200 According to Antheil himself, the very words 
'Ballet Mecanique' were meant to evoke 'the spiritual exhaustion, the superath- 
letic, non-sentimental period commencing "The Long Armistice"'. 201 

The 'superathleticism' of boxing also represented a 'non-sentimental' 
mechanical operation for Marcel Duchamp, who, incidentally, bore a striking re- 
semblance to Georges Carpentier. (In 1924 Francis Picabia used a portrait of 
Carpentier for the cover of the Dada journal 391, claiming it was a portrait of 
Duchamp. 202 ) One of Duchamp's early studies for the nine-foot-high The Large 
Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23) was entitled 'The 
Boxing Match'. 203 While the construction keeps the bride (on top) and her bach- 
elors (below) apart, the notes, which Duchamp intended to be an integral part of 
the work, shows how they might come together. Sketched out in 1913, reworked 
as a photomontage in 1919, and included in a 1965 etching of The Large Glass 


Completed, 'The Boxing Match' was never included in the construction, which was 
finally left 'definitely unfinished'. 204 

One of the most abstractly geometrical parts of the Large Glass, and one of 
its more complex mechanical operations, 'The Boxing Match' consisted of arcs 
and circles, 'presumably matching punches and swings'. 205 As Calvin Tompkins 
notes, 'it shows a clockwork mechanism that causes two battering rams to move 
up and down, loosening as they do the bride's clothes and causing them to fall. 
All this does not take place smoothly but jerkily'. 206 Jean Suquet describes these 
'rams' as being held by the bachelors above their heads like musclemen, to hold 
up the horizon-garment of the Bride. The rams fall. The dress slips off- or at 
least begins to.' Suquet goes on to discuss Duchamp's speedy repudiation of 
'these sideshow musclemen and their rigged boxing match in favour of a fire (ig- 
nited gas will 'burn with desire'), but it is interesting to consider what the box- 
ing analogy added to his original story. 207 In various interviews, Duchamp 
described the drawing as part of an attempt to 'get away' from 'personal style' 
and 'retinal painting': 'that was the period when I changed completely from 
splashing the paint on the canvas to an absolutely precise co-ordinated drawing; 
and with no relation to artistic handiwork'. 208 As a style, 'mechanical drawing' 
signalled the impersonal; as a subject matter, boxing, it seems, was intended to 
do the same. But can a machine designed to strip the clothes from a woman ever 
really be thought of as impersonal? Andre Breton described the Large Glass as 'a 
mechanistic, cynical interpretation of love: the passage of woman from the state 
of virginity to the state of non-virginity taken as the theme of an asentimental 
speculation'. 209 The role of 'musclemen' and 'a boxing match' in this passage cer- 
tainly confirms the 'asentimental' nature of Duchamp's view of 'love', but such 
asentimentalism is hardly impersonal or even merely cynical. The exchange of en- 
ergy between bride and bachelors is propelled by an inherent erotic aggression. 

Aggressive anti-sentimentalism is also at work in Djuna Barnes's 1936 Paris 
novel, Nightwood, a novel that presents gender and sexual identities as roles to 
be performed mechanically, and love as a violent and 'bloodthirsty' business. 210 
Jenny fights off her lover Robin by striking her repeatedly with powerful 'blows', 
while the transvestite Dr O'Connor ('heavily rouged and his lashes painted') 
lives in a room that is 'a cross between a chambre a coucher and a boxer's train- 
ing camp'; he describes himself as 'an old worn out lioness, a coward in my cor- 
ner'. Dr O'Connor tells the lovelorn Nora Flood that when a woman loves 'a 
Sodomite', she often finds her lover 'has committed the unpardonable error of 
not being able to exist' and ends up 'with a dummy' in her arms. That is, he 
says, 'God's last round, shadow-boxing, that the heart may be murdered'. 211 


'Every man must shout' and use his 'fists', announced Tristan Tzara in 1918; 'there 
is great destructive, negative work to be done'. 212 Although developed largely in 
reaction to Futurism, Dadaism retained much of its language and gestures. In 


the manifestos which followed, fists are continually evoked as essential Dadaist 
tools against establishment culture. That of 'Monsieur Aa The Antiphilosopher' 
in February 1920 begins 'without the pursuit of I worship you / which is a French 
boxer', and three months later, 'Monsieur Aa The Antiphilosopher Sends Us An- 
other Manifesto' ends with the words 'Punch yourself in the face and drop dead.' 
Tzara later described one of his plays as 'a boxing match with words'. 213 

One of the things that the Dadaists adopted from Futurism was a fondness 
for soirees, what would now be called happenings or performance art; occa- 
sions in which, as Tzara put it, the 'vitality of every instant' could be affirmed. 
In 1916 the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich staged a series of soirees negres. Tzara re- 
called a typical evening: 

Boxing resumed: Cubist dance, costumes byjanco, each man his own 
bug drum on his head, noise, Negro music/ trabatgea bonoooooo 00 
00000/5 literary experiments: Tzara in tails stands before the curtain, 
stone sober for the animals, and explains the new aesthetic. 214 

Dada's interest in boxing drew partly on a familiar primitivist ideology that 
championed ritual over realism, and partly on a cabaret tradition in which box- 
ing had long played a part, mingling with trapeze acts, jugglers and animal acts. 
Both these elements are also present in German Expressionism, one of Dada's 
targets. Max Pechstein's Boxer in the Ring (1910), for example, was one of a num- 
ber of postcards by the Briicke artists recording cabaret acts ranging from can- 
can dancers, jugglers, and trapeze artists to boxers (illus. 62). 215 While Pechstein 
celebrated the popular and the primitive, he did not suggest that cabaret or the 
circus would change the world. Dada, however, like Futurism before it, hoped 
that the confrontational 'body events' on stage would spill out into the streets, 
that the city would become the arena and life itself a revolutionary perform- 
ance. 216 When, in 1923, Malcolm Cowley punched a Parisian cafe proprietor on 
the jaw, he was surprised how impressed his Dadaist friends were. 217 

As Dada spread across Europe, and evolved into Surrealism, boxing im- 
agery continued to be used to express bold repudiation of convention. Paul Der- 
mee presented 'Boxing without Tears' at the 1920 Paris Dada Festival and 
Jacques Rigaut's 1929 surrealist autobiography includes the employment of his 
American right hook'. 'What a peal of laughter at my mistress's terrified face 
when, as she waited to receive a caress, I slugged her with my American right 
hook and her body fell several feet away'. 218 From the early days of Dada, an al- 
lusion to boxing was also intended to suggest an interest in dialectics. Picabia 
and Rene Clair's film, Entr'Acte (1924) opens with fifteen seconds of white box- 
ing gloves punching each other against a black background, before moving on 
to present a seemingly random series of scenes and images. It is tempting to 
read Andre Breton's 'poem-objets' in the same way. One includes a series of 
handwritten phrases, such as 'these vague landscapes' and 'crouching in the 
house of my heart', among an assemblage of a bust of a man, an oil lantern, a 


framed photograph and toy boxing gloves. But while Entr'Acte deliberately frus- 
trated attempts to provide a coherent reading, Breton struggled to create a sur- 
real unity out of these 'contradictory conditions or phenomena'. 219 

The Dadaist who intermingled the discourses of boxing and poetry most 
fully and self-consciously was Arthur Cravan. Born Fabien Avenarius Lloyd in 
1887, Cravan was the nephew of Oscar Wilde's wife, Constance, and wrote of 
his affinity with his uncle, 'although our chest measurement differs'. 220 In the 
tradition of his heroes Whitman and Rimbaud, Cravan ('the world's shortest- 
haired poet') used boxing as a means to crater /e^owrgeoK. From 1912 to 1915, he 
published six issues of a polemical journal called Maintenant, which became a 
model for all subsequent Dada magazines. Mainly written by Cravan himself, 
Maintenant featured articles attacking modern writers and painters, insulting 
them about their physical as well as artistic shortcomings. 221 According to 
Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, it was his review of the 1914 Independents Exhibition 
in Paris that 'made him famous'. The article offered 'a bit of good advice: take a 
few pills and purge your mind; do a lot of fucking or better still go into rigorous 
training: when the girth of your arms measures nineteen inches, you'll at least 
be a brute, if you're gifted'. Cravan justified this kind of criticism by claiming in 
Nietzschean terms that 'genius is nothing but an extraordinary manifestation 
of the body', but insulting individual bodies was a risky business. He so offended 
Marie Laurencin ('Now there's one who needs to have her skirts lifted up') that 
her lover Guillaume Apollinaire had him arrested for defamation of charac- 
ter. 222 'In its systematic provocation,' Roger Shattuck suggested, Cravan's writ- 
ing 'resembles a literary transposition of boxing techniques'. 223 But Cravan's 


'Johnson and 
Cravan - and their 
wives', The Soil, 
April 1917. 


were not just any boxing techniques; more precisely, as Mina Loy noted, 'the 
instinct of "knock-out" dominated his critique'. 224 But more was needed to be 
a true 'boxer-poet'. 

In fact, Cravan's boxing had preceded his poetry. He took up the sport at six- 
teen and in 1910 won the French Amateur Light Heavyweight Championship. 
His hero, Jack Johnson, was, however, in a different league entirely. ('Ah! let me 
laugh, laugh, but truly laugh, like Jack Johnson!', he once wrote). 225 Cravan, 
who frequently asserted that he was 'ashamed of being white', befriended John- 
son in Paris in 1916. Nina Hamnett recalled that he was often to be found 'spar- 
ring with negro boxers at Van Dongen's studio on Thursday afternoons'; one of 
those boxers was probably Johnson, who was posing for a portrait. 226 Soon the 
two men came up with a scheme to make both some money (illus. 99). They 
staged a fight in the Plaza de Toros in Barcelona, which only continued until 
the sixth round because, as part of the deal, they needed to put on a good show 
for the film cameras. The French poet Blaise Cendrars gave a lively, if inaccu- 
rate account of the contest. 227 Cravan used his earnings to pay for a transat- 
lantic steamer on which he impressed fellow passenger Leon Trotsky. 228 At the 
end of 1918, he disappeared in bizarre circumstances off the coast of Mexico 
and was never seen again. That mystery, and Mina Loy's enduring love for her 
boxer-poet-husband soon became the stuff of legend. 229 


In the late nineteenth century English boxing established itself in Moscow, and 
while never popular there to the extent that it was in Berlin or Paris, the sport 
had a certain following among the military. After 1917, however, boxing became 
rather controversial. Immediately after the Revolution, there was support for 
sports that would promote hard work and a strong defence. In November 1918, 
the first Soviet boxing championship was held in Moscow, and despite 'starva- 
tion, the cold, a typhoid outbreak and the Civil War', it attracted a large 
crowd. 230 By the mid- 1920s, however, it was widely maintained that sports such 
as wrestling and boxing encouraged dangerous competitive and individualis- 
tic values. Although boxing was very popular at the time, with active gyms from 
Moscow to Odessa, and foreign films such as The Boxer's Bride doing well at the 
cinema, the first Trade-Union Games in 1925 excluded the sport, and the 
Leningrad Physical Culture Council banned it. 231 In 1928, Vladimir Mayakovsky 
wrote a poem called 'Comrades, discuss Red Sport!', in which he complained 
that 'sport has not changed much as yet'. The poem ends with an exhortation 
to sporting lads to pay attention to their political education as well as their bi- 
ceps, for 'we need sportsmen who enlighten the masses'. 232 

The 'hygienists' argued that sports depended on an instrumental view of 
the body as a series of parts designed to perform specific function (bend, duck, 
punch) while physical culture promoted a more harmonious and holistic de- 
velopment. Whether boxing had a place in the new regimes was much debated. 


In 1929 the Minister of Education and Arts, Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote an open 
letter to the press supporting the sport. Not only did boxing involve 'the whole 
nervous system, heart, blood circulation, the respiratory system and, in every 
way, the muscles of the upper part of the body and the legs; it develops inven- 
tiveness and accuracy . . . stamina, self-control, fearlessness, and courage more 
than any other sport'. It was inaccurate, Lunacharsky maintained, to dub box- 
ing an essentially bourgeois enterprise for 'even the fiercest bout teaches one to 
regard one's opponent as a comrade with whom one has common cause'. 233 
There was some sympathy for this view; Jack London was, after all, an extremely 
popular writer in the Soviet Union. 234 In the place of competitive sports, how- 
ever, the Proletkultists proposed collective exercise and lavish sports spectacles 
(some parades mounted boxing rings on floats). 235 One of these spectacles, the 
Moscow Spartakiada athletic competition of 1928 (named for the Roman slave 
rebel Spartacus), was commemorated in a series of dynamic collage-based 
posters and postcards by Gustav Klucis. By designing posters for films and 
sports events, Constructivist artists such as Klucis and the Stenberg brothers 
signalled their intention to bridge the gap between avant-garde art and prole- 
tarian culture (illus. 63). 

In general, the 1920s were 'years of physical culture or fitness . . . rather 
than sport', a trend that inspired derision from the Cambridge-educated and 
Berlin-based emigre, Vladimir Nabokov. 236 Nabokov was scathing about phys- 
ical culture, 'in which everyone is condemned to do everything as one . . . not al- 
lowing that anyone might be better made than his neighbour'. These words 
were written in Berlin, where he lived from 1922 to 1937, and, according to his 
wife Vera, 'taught many subjects . . . languages, tennis, boxing. And prosody, 
prosody.' 237 For Nabokov, in 1925, play had an 'enticing, disturbing' quality en- 
tirely absent from both Communist gymnastics and the German 'goose step'. 
'What we feel in our muscles is the essence of play', he wrote, but watching 
sports was also play. His essay ends with an account of Hans Breitenstrater's 
defeat by the Spanish heavyweight Paulino Uzcudan and a lyrical vision of the 
spectators leaving the stadium after the fight: 

When we all emptied out on to the street in the frosty blue of a snowy 
night, I was certain that in the flabbiest father of a family, in the most 
modest youth, in the souls and muscles of all this crowd, which tomor- 
row early in the morning will disperse to offices, to shops, to factories, 
there was one and the same beautiful feeling, for the sake of which it 
was worthwhile to bring together two boxers, a feeling of confident 
sparkling strength, of cheerfulness, of manliness in the play of the in- 
spiring boxers. And this playful feeling, perhaps, is more important 
and purer than many so-called 'elevated pleasures'. 238 



Post-war European interest in American culture was accompanied, if not driven, 
by a fascination with American economic practices and, in particular, with the 
successes of Frederick Taylor's time-and-motion studies and their application to 
factory production by Henry Ford. By the early twenties, Taylorism and Fordism 
had become bywords for efficiency and rationalization in many different spheres. 

While the application of Taylorism to sport is often discussed, the impor- 
tance of sport for Taylorism is less well known. The Principles of Scientific 
Management (1911) begins by asking how 'greater efficiency' can be achieved in 
the workplace and, in particular, how workers can be encouraged to work at a 
faster pace. Taylor notes that 'the English and American peoples are the greatest 
sportsmen in the world', and when playing sport (baseball and cricket are his 
examples) a typical workman 'strains every nerve to secure victory for his side.' 
But 'when the same workman returns to work on the following day, instead of 
using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, in a majority 
of cases this man deliberately plans to do as little as he safely can'. 239 How can 
the worker be motivated to strive for productivity at work as well as in sports? 
Taylor's answer drew on many of the rationalizing regulations that such meas- 
ures as the Queensberry rules had already introduced; specifying the 'task' to be 
done; learning to use 'strength to the very best advantage'; 'having proper sci- 
entifically determined periods of rest in close sequence to periods of work'; in 
short applying 'rigid rules of each motion of every man'. 240 These principles were 
applied to many aspects of Soviet, as well as American and European, life in the 
1920s. 'Production gymnastics' were performed in factories, and the Taylorized 
performance of work movements was itself seen as a kind of sport. In the unalien- 
ated labour of socialism, it was argued, work and leisure should fuse. 

Taylorism also had an impact on the theatre. In 1905 Vsevolod Meyerhold, 
previously known as an actor in Chekhov's plays at the Moscow Art Theatre, 
had opened an acting laboratory. There, and later in St Petersburg, he devel- 
oped a series of exercises for his students to perform as a way of revolutionizing 
stage drama, moving it away from a psychological emphasis and breaking down 
the gap between actor and spectator. The studio was closed by the revolution in 
1917, but reopened in Moscow in 1921. Meyerhold reintroduced his St Peters- 
burg exercises and renamed them 'bio-mechanics'. Meyerhold's newly Tay- 
lorized exercises, 'by which each movement of the body' was to be 'differentiated 
and made fully expressive', included a 'blow to the nose', and were taught along- 
side gymnastics, juggling, fencing, ballet, tap dancing and boxing. 241 If during 
this period, sport was increasingly presented as a form of theatre, theorists like 
Meyerhold maintained that theatre should in turn learn from sport. 'Only via 
the sports arena can we approach the theatrical arena', he declared in 1922. Re- 
placing psychological theories, Meyerhold's methods sought to establish a more 
objective basis for acting, based on an understanding of biology and mechanics. 


The muscles and tendons of the actors were to be considered as comparable to 
piston rods and cylinders. 

One of Meyerhold's students was Sergei Eisenstein who, in 1921, drew heav- 
ily on his principles for an 'agit-poster' of Jack London's short story, 'The Mex- 
ican', the story of a young revolutionary who boxes in order to get money for 
guns. Eisenstein was appointed by the First Workers' Theatre of the Proletkult 
to produce scenery and costumes, and for both drew heavily on Cubism and 
the circus. The climax of the agit-poster was the fight scene. The play's director, 
Valeri Smishlayev, wanted to portray this through the reaction of the charac- 
ters who were observing an event that was supposedly taking place off-stage. 
Eisenstein, however, suggested that the fight be performed in front of the audi- 
ence, in fact in the middle of the auditorium, as if it were taking place in a box- 
ing ring. Although the theatre's firemen soon dismissed this suggestion, 
Eisenstein later recalled the scene as important to the development of his ideas 
about film. 'Here, my participation brought into the theatre "events" themselves 

- a purely cinematographic element, as distinguished from "reactions to events" 

- which is a purely theatrical element.' 

We dared the concreteness of factual events. The fight was to be care- 
fully planned in advance but was to be utterly realistic. The playing of 
our young worker-actors in the fight scene differed radically from the 
acting elsewhere in the production . . . While the other scenes 
influenced the audience through intonation, gestures and mimicry, 
[this] scene employed realistic, even textual means - real fighting, bod- 
ies crashing to the ring floor, panting, the shine of sweat on the torso, 
and finally, the unforgettable smacking of gloves against taunt skin and 
strained muscles. 242 

In the years that followed Eisenstein moved from theatre into film, and de- 
veloped the theory of montage with which he is now identified. Montage was 
also the method of Dziga Vertov, but Vertov remained interested in 'reactions 
to events'. He argued that the new cinema should replace the multiplicity of 
subjective reactions with an objective, collective response determined in ad- 
vance by the artist or 'Cine-Eye'. In order to explain how this revolutionary ap- 
proach might work, Vertov used the example of a crowd watching a boxing 
match. Each spectator at the fight itself came away with different impression of 
what had taken place, what Vertov dismissed as 'a series of incoherent impres- 
sions '. In place of this, he wanted to subject 'the eye to the will of the camera'. The 
camera would film 'the consecutive movements of those fighting' and present 
them in such a way (montage 'in the most profitable order') that 'the relevant 
materials' would be presented before the spectators and their eyes would be 
'forced' to witness 'the consecutive details that they must see'. 243 The movement 
of the Cine-Eye thus supersedes that of the fighters themselves; the actual 
conflict in the ring is replaced by a cinematic assault on the audience. 


A more sophisticated approach informed Eisenstein's third film, October 
(1927), which told the story of the 1917 revolution, and included both actors and 
documentary footage, a combination that Eisenstein called the 'played and non- 
played'. In an essay on the film he used a boxing metaphor to describe the often- 
discussed 'opposition' between these two modes of film-making, only to dismiss 
it as a false contest. 

When there are two contestants it is usually the third who is right. 
In the ring now: 
Played and non-played. 
That means that justice lies with the third. 
With the extra-played. 
With cinema that places itself beyond the played and the non-played. 244 

In 1921, boxing had appealed to Eisenstein as a sign of the real (the 'raw mate- 
rial' and 'fact' of the non-played rather than the falsity of the played), but by 
1928, he rejected opposition itself (what he called the 'agitational theatre of attrac- 
tions') in favour of dialectics. 245 The model of the boxing match, in which one 
contestant is always victorious, had been superseded by one that maintained 
that both contestants could be accommodated in a productive synthesis. 

Of course Meyerhold and his followers were not the only early twentieth- 
century figures who challenged the verbal and psychological emphasis of film 
and theatre by incorporating elements from the cabaret, the circus and the sports 
stadium. Throughout the twentieth century, sport continued to provide a model 
for theatrical performance, with the boxing ring providing an ideal space within 
which dramatic conflict could be staged. The theatricality of boxing is apparent, 
and much has been made, not least in this book, of the ease in which a boxing 
match (the ultimate two-hander) can be made to express conflict. The tropes of 
boxing have appealed to a wide range of playwrights and directors who reject 
the verbal and psychological in favour of a theatre that is at least one of the fol- 
lowing - physical, ritualistic, popular, scientific and impersonal, or violent. 246 
The French mime Etienne Decroux, for example, took Georges Carpentier as 'the 
motivating image' for his study of 'physical mime (tragedy section)', praising the 
boxer's 'vigor and grace; strength; elegance; dazzle and thought; a taste for dan- 
ger and a smile'. 247 Antonin Artaud, meanwhile, posited a connection between 
the ritualistic purging of violence in a boxing match and in what he called the 
Theatre of Cruelty. According to Artaud, the actor and athlete are doubles, the 
only difference being that while the athlete makes 'muscular movements of phys- 
ical exertion', the actor's efforts require 'affective musculature'. The actor must 
'use his emotions in the same way a boxer uses his muscles.' 248 

Bertolt Brecht was less interested in making actors like sportsmen than in 
turning theatre audiences (as Pound, in 1911, had wanted to turn readers of 
poetry) into sports spectators. His 1926 essay, 'More Good Sports', begins by 
declaring, 'We pin our hopes on the sporting public'. 


Make no bones about it, we have our eye on those huge pans of concrete 
filled with 15,000 men and women of every variety of class and phys- 
iognomy, the fairest and shrewdest audience in the world . . . The de- 
moralization of our theatre audiences springs from the fact that neither 
theatre nor audience has any idea what is supposed to go on there. 
When people in sporting establishments buy their tickets they know ex- 
actly what is going to take place and that is exactly what does take place 
once they are in their seats: viz. highly trained persons developing their 
peculiar powers in the way most suited to them with the greatest sense 
of responsibility yet in such a way as to make one feel that they are 
doing it primarily for their own fun. Against that the traditional theatre 
nowadays is quite lacking in character. 249 

The boxing fan, sitting smoking in a brightly lit hall, represented Brecht's ideal 
spectator. Although the programme note for the 1928 Heidelberg production of 
In the Jungle of Cities described the fight as a microcosm of class struggle, Brecht 
originally conceived it as 'a fight for fighting's sake' to find out who was 'the best 
man' - in other words, sport. The prologue informs the audience that it is about 
to witness 'an inexplicable boxing match': 'Don't worry your heads about the 
motives for the fight, concentrate on the stakes. Judge impartially the techniques 
of the contenders, and keep your eyes fixed on the finish.' 250 Brecht hoped that 
by behaving like a fight audience, the theatre audience would abandon its tra- 
ditional Aristotelian concerns with character and motive. The boxing match, 
in other words, exemplified what he termed 'epic theatre', a theatre which en- 
courages the spectator to 'judge' the contents of the play objectively, and avoid 
emotional identification with its protagonists or events. 'Instead of sharing an 
experience the spectator must come to grips with things. ' 251 Brecht maintained, 
as Pound had done, that the financial interest the boxing audience has in the 
outcome of the fight makes it more astute to its workings. If only, both hoped, 
something could similarly inspire poets and theatre audiences to pay attention 
to technique. Brecht's solution was to remove all attempts at concealment and 
mystification. Audiences should be encouraged to smoke as 'it is hopeless to 
"carry away" any man who is smoking and accordingly pretty well occupied 
with himself. In addition, 'the theatre must acquire qua theatre the same fas- 
cinating reality as a sporting arena during a boxing match. The best thing is to 
show the machinery, the ropes and the flies.' Theatrical lighting should be bright 
and 'within the spectator's field of vision'. The spectator should see that 
'arrangements have been made to show him something . . . No one would expect 
the lighting to be hidden at ... a boxing match.' 'By these means,' Brecht con- 
cluded, 'one would soon have a theatre full of experts, just as one has sporting 
arenas full of experts.' 252 In the meantime, he would have been glad to note that 
in 1928, a Berlin theatre postponed a premiere because it coincided with the 
heavyweight title fight between Max Schmeling and Franz Diener. 253 


A connection between boxing and modernity dominated rhetoric in the 1920s, 
as it had in the 1820s. Both decades saw a flourishing of sport and of artistic ex- 
perimentation in the wake of a major war. The language of boxing allowed for 
the assertion of both masculine and national invulnerability. But important 
changes in the nature of the sport had taken place in the hundred years that 
separated Byron from Hemingway. While the Fancy had created a distinctive 
and class-based male subculture, the 1920s saw sports stars become interna- 
tional celebrities for both men and women. Class was less an issue than race, and 
money was bigger than both. The nature of the contest had also changed. In 
the early nineteenth century, the hero of the ring was the man who could endure 
a beating for up to six hours; in the early twentieth century, it was the man who 
could knock out his opponent in less than 60 seconds. But one thing that does 
link the 1820s and 1920s is the short duration of the glory years. After Dempsey's 
defeat and Tunney's retirement, many noted the end of an era. Nostalgia 
returned to the language of commentators on both sport and art, and in 1949, 
Jean Arp declared that the golden age of heavyweight modernism was over. All 
that remained of its legacy were publicists and courtiers. It was now an 'era of 
flyweight glory'. 254 



Save Me, Jack Dempsey; 
Save Me, Joe Louis 

Boxing fans always like to imagine hypothetical contests: could John L. Sulli- 
van have beaten Mike Tyson? How would Amir Khan have fared against Roberto 
Duran? In the 1930s imaginary contests between Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey 
were all the rage, and one forms the basis of Irwin Shaw's 1939 story, 'I Stand By 
Dempsey'. Two boxing fans leave a Madison Square Garden disgusted with the 
show. 'Not a bloody nose,' Flanagan said, 'Not a single drop of blood. Heavy- 
weights! Heavyweight pansies!' The conversation switches to Joe Louis and 
whether Dempsey 'in his prime' would have beaten him. Gurske thinks he 
would, but Flanagan dismisses his fervour as the over-excitement of 'a little guy' 
- 'a guy is under five foot six, every time he gets in a argument he gets excited'. 
Finally Gurske snaps and throws a bottle at Flanagan, who lifts his friend into 
the air by the collar and declares him a 'hundred-and-thirty-pound Napoleon'. 
The story ends bizarrely with Flanagan laying Gurske over his knee and spank- 
ing him. It takes 32 strokes before Gurske will say 'I stand by Louis' and con- 
cedes that Louis would have beaten Dempsey in the second round. 1 

Louis and Dempsey were talismanic figures for many Americans during the 
Depression. In different ways, each man provided a focus for discussions of 
failure and success, endurance and survival, for a sense that one might be lucky 
or unlucky. The question of allegiance for one or other boxer was more compli- 
cated than simply white and black, although that discourse was often relevant. 
Dempsey was a figure from the past, the champion of the affluent twenties, strug- 
gling to adapt to new circumstance; Louis, meanwhile, emerged from the heart 
of the Depression and for many, seemed to suggest the promise of a new kind of 

Jack Dempsey remained a popular figure long after he lost the title to Gene 
Tunney in 1927. This was partly due to the fact that, after Tunney's retirement 
the following year, the heavyweight title changed hands rapidly (from Max 
Schmeling to Jack Sharkey to Primo Camera to Max Baer to James J. Braddock) 
with no enduring champion emerging until Joe Louis in 1937. (A. J. Liebling 
dubbed this period 'the Dark Age' of boxing. 2 ) Dempsey, meanwhile, main- 
tained and developed his public profile. After losing money in the 1929 crash 


and through an expensive divorce settlement in 1930, he began fighting 
exhibitions and refereeing, and in 1935 opened Jack Dempsey's 'gaudily meatish' 
Restaurant, near Madison Square Garden, which, after moving to Broadway, 
stayed in business until 1974. 3 During the economic boom of the twenties, 
Dempsey's youthful experiences of poverty had made him seem exotic to many 
Americans. He represented a rough-hewn relic of the frontier days, and was all 
the more modern for his seeming primitivism. At the height of the Depression, 
however, Dempsey's appeal shifted, as many more people felt that they were 
living in a world where conventional rules no longer applied; novelist Jo Sinclair, 
for example, described the Depression itself as 'getting slugged below the belt'. 4 
No longer an intriguing anachronism, the Manassa Mauler became a repre- 
sentative man. 

Dempsey's final defeats form the basis of Horace Gregory's poem, 'Dempsey, 
Dempsey', included in the influential 1935 anthology Proletarian Literature in the 
United States. The poem begins by addressing the ex-champion as the 'failure 
king of the usa', a model for all those who are down, but not yet out: 

there's a million boys that want to come back 

with hell in their eyes and a terrible sock 

that almost connects. 

They've got to come back, out of the street, 

out of some lowdown, lousy job 

or take a count with Dempsey. 

But Dempsey cannot stop the 'big boss' who cuts their pay checks, Gregory sug- 
gests; he cannot even earn his own. As the poem's desperation intensifies, the 
final stanza recasts the enemy; the problem is not just 'the big boss' but those 
who 'quit' the fight. 

I can't get up, I'm dead, my legs 

are dead, see, I'm no good, 

they got me and I'm out, 

down for the count. 

I've quit, quit again, 

only God save Dempsey, make him get up again, 

Dempsey, Dempsey. 5 

Throughout the thirties and beyond, Dempsey served as an iconic figure both 
to those who identified with his losses and failures, and those who felt that they too 
could one day be champion of the world, if only they worked hard enough. Two 
photographs exemplify the conflicting aspects of his appeal. In the first, a touched- 
up studio print from 1937, he is pictured with an eight-year-old in Philadelphia 
supporting the United Studios campaign for boys' clubs - inspiring hope for the 
future (illus. 100). In the second, from 1939, he appears at the State Penitentiary in 



Jack Dempsey meets 
eight-year-old John 
Panulla at the 
Germantown Boys 
Club, Philadelphia, 

Jack Dempsey 
addresses prisoners 
at the State Peniten- 
tiary, Raleigh, North 
Carolina, 1939. The 
caption reads 'Many 
of the men whom he 
talked to have been 
in prison since he 
won his title.' 

North Carolina; the ropes on the ring separating the boxer from the prisoners, but 
also suggesting that the ring itself might be a kind of prison (illus. 101). 


In a 1933 sociological study of 'Americans at play', Jesse Frederick Steiner noted 
a 'growing interest in amateur boxing'; an interest, he argued, which had been 
stimulated by 'the Golden Gloves Amateur boxing contest sponsored by the 
Chicago Daily Tribune and the New York Daily News'. Such events, he maintained, 
'demonstrated that the sport can draw large crowds when conducted as a boxing 
match and not as a prize fight'. 7 Steiner's comments suggest that the increased 
appeal of amateur boxing was due to a sudden revival in sporting spirit, but mass 
unemployment was probably a more significant factor. In 1933, 50 per cent of 
Americans between the age of fifteen and nineteen were unemployed. Otis 
L. Graham notes that, on average, young Americans waited two years to find 
work after finishing school and 'about 25 percent never found employment until 
the war'. 8 Considerable sums of public and charitable money were spent on 
creating sports facilities for a population that suddenly 'had more leisure and 
less money'. 9 Most contestants in boxing competitions did not view amateur 
success as an end in itself. At the very least, as Barney Ross recalled, amateurs 
won 'medals and trophies and watches which they could pawn for a few bucks': 

Sometimes you'd get a box of shirts, sometimes, ties or socks, some- 
times a pair of shoes. Whenever I won, I'd take my merchandise around 
to the ghetto neighbourhood and sell it as a bargain. I used to get a 
dollar for $2.95 shirts, a dollar for a box of ties and about two dollars 
for eight- or nine-dollar shoes. 10 

'Pawnshop fighting' was all very well, but the real goal was to turn professional 
and earn some serious money. Steven Riess notes that during the thirties, 
around 8,000 men boxed professionally, many more than ever before. 11 Only a 
handful made a living at the sport. 

Neighbourhood gyms and small boxing clubs often had fierce ethnic affili- 
ations. Beryl Rosofsky, who, renamed Barney Ross, won the world lightweight 
championship in 1932, and the welterweight title in 1934, began fighting ama- 
teur bouts at Kid Howard's gym in Chicago's West Side. As his reputation began 
to spread, Ross recalled, his 'pals and neighbours from the old neighbourhood 
were all loyal to me and I was able to get a good crowd out for each fight'. When 
he became the first Golden Glover to win a professional title, the whole of 
Chicago seemed to adopt him. In his autobiography Ross presents his decision 
to take up boxing as a rational career choice: a steady job at Sears Roebuck 
would not satisfy his 'feverish desire to make a lot of money in a hurry', and Al 
Capone and the other 'big gangsters' had turned him down. Ross justified his 
choice of profession by saying that he needed to support his family after his 


orthodox Jewish father was murdered in his shop. 'If Pa had lived,' he wrote, 'I 
think he would have killed me before he ever would have permitted me to put 
on a pair of gloves and climb into a ring.' 12 According to legend, Ross's mother 
came to accept his boxing, sewed the Star of David onto his trunks, and on Fri- 
day nights prayed for him at the synagogue before walking five miles to the sta- 
dium to watch him fight. Ross retired in 1938, and after Pearl Harbor 
volunteered for the Marine Corps. At Guadalcanal he was seriously wounded 
trying to help a trapped scout patrol, and was awarded a Silver Star and the Dis- 
tinguished Service Cross. After the war he became a staunch Zionist, smuggling 
guns into Israel after 1948. Two films draw on part of Ross's story - Body and Soul 
(1948) and Monkey on My Back (1957). 

Thirties fiction and film is full of stories about dreams of individual suc- 
cess, stories of escaping poverty and rebuilding the family fortunes through 
sport or crime. Ross's employment choice (boxing or Al Capone) became em- 
blematic, as the sportsman and the gangster were presented as related figures, 
both advancing as best they could in a world that barred more conventional 
routes. Once again Dempsey epitomized the fighter who could just as easily 
have become a criminal. In 1937 Paul Gallico described him, rather floridly, as 
the product of a 'hard rough world in which there was never any softness or any 
decency ... I can see him as a surly, dangerous inhabitant of that spiteful nether 
world, just on the borderline of the criminal.' 13 The 'borderline' professions of 
prize-fighter and criminal were seen as glamorous alternatives to the breadline, 
and, for some, they were interchangeable, not only with each other, but with a 
new kind of movie star. 14 When Benny Lynch returned to Glasgow after win- 
ning the world flyweight title in 1937, he was hailed as both the 'Jack Dempsey 
of the small men' and the Gorbals Jimmy Cagney (illus. 102). 15 

Robert Sklar argues that through his portrayals of boxers and gangsters, 
James Cagney established a new 'cultural type': the urban tough guy - small, 
wiry and street-smart, the product of the ethnic neighbourhoods of Chicago 
and New York. 16 Cagney, in other words, was the Jack Dempsey of the big screen, 
and Benny Lynch was not the only one to think of the two men as comparable 
idols (illus. 103). Cagney first played a gangster in The Public Enemy (1931) and 
a boxer in Winner Take All (1932). As gangster Tom Powers, he operates from an 
office whose walls display pictures of John L. Sullivan, and he shows affection to 
his mother and friends with repeated short-fisted jabs. The main difference be- 
tween being a boxer and being a gangster seems simply to be where your 
weapon is concealed. When Powers goes to get fitted for a suit, the dresser feels 
his biceps. 'Oh sir,' he campily says, 'here's where you need the room - such a 
muscle!' Powers, however, wants the extra room in his waistband - such a gun, 
is what he's counting on. 17 

The press was quick to praise the 'effortless authenticity' of Cagney 's per- 
formances as both gangster and boxer. One review of Winner Take All concluded 
enthusiastically that he 'carries with him a veritable smell of the shower room, 
of sweating body and sodden leather'. 18 Nevertheless, a large part of the film is 


about his character's misguided attempt to rid himself of the authenticating 
marks of boxing, when he falls in love with a heartless 'society dame' called Joan 
(Virginia Bruce). As soon as she tells him that he might be handsome (and hence 
kissable) without his broken nose and cauliflower ear, he rushes off to a plastic 
surgeon. Fixed up, he then rushes back to Joan, saying, 'I want to be just like 
you want me, honey'. Joan, however, is not interested; as she later tells a friend, 
'he's lost all the things that made him colourful and different; he's just ordinary 
now, like any other man. And one thing I can't stand is bad grammar spoken 
through a perfect Grecian nose.' 19 Joan is not the only one to reject the beautified 
Jim. The boxing crowd don't like the defensive style he adopts to protect his 
face and a newspaper headline accuses him of becoming a '"Powder Puff" 
Boxer'. All is put right at the end when Jim fights for the championship, dam- 
ages his face and returns to the arms of his original working-class girlfriend. 
The film's reference to plastic surgery and powder puff boxers brings to mind 
the era of smooth-faced silent screen lovers and in particular, Rudolph 
Valentino. In evoking, but rejecting, that model, Winner Take All announced the 
birth of a new kind of Hollywood leading man. 20 

Cagney's sex appeal may have been sadistic and anarchic, but after 1932, 
the films in which he appeared were often promotional vehicles for Franklin D. 
Roosevelt's New Deal administration. Warner Brothers supported Roosevelt's 
campaign and even laid on a special train to bring stars to his inauguration in 
1933- 21 The first of Warner's overtly New Deal films was released later that year. 
Although rather an ideological muddle, Heroes for Sale is determinedly optimistic 

Fans watch as Benny 
Lynch trains. 



Publicity still 
of James Cagney 
as a boxer. 

about the capacity of Americans to survive the Depression; as one character 
puts it, 'it takes more than one sock on the jaw to lick a hundred and twenty 
million people'. As if to illustrate this point literally, many subsequent Warner's 
films involved socks on the jaws. In Winner Take All, a typical boxing melo- 
drama, Cagney plays a worn-out fighter called Jim Kane. While in New Mexico 
for a rest cure, he meets Peggy (Marian Nixon), a young widow who can't pay 
her bills because the insurance company won't honour her husband's life in- 
surance policy. Still in poor health, Kane offers to fight to pay her debt. Aaron 
Baker argues that this sequence of events embodies the 'hybrid ideology' of both 
the film and populism more generally: the community is to be redeemed by the 
efforts of a rugged individualist who labours not just for his own good, but for 
that of others. 22 The movie's emphasis on individualism is further bolstered by 
the terms under which the fight takes place. Initially, Jim is told that the loser's 
fee is $600, exactly the amount of Peggy's debt. But when the fight promoter 


learns this, he worries that Jim won't fight seriously. 'What guarantee do I have,' 
he asks, 'that you won't fold in the first round, just to get the loser's fee?' In- 
stead, he proposes that the fight be 'winner take all' - $2,000 or nothing. The 
initial terms of the agreement might be read as representing those of the New 
Deal itself, including a measure of social insurance - a safety net of $600 for the 
loser. This deal, however, introduces an element of risk for the promoter/state, 
the risk that the fighter/worker will rely on the safety net and abandon the com- 
petitive incentives of boxing/work. A 'winner take all' system shifts the risk 
from the promoter to the fighter and represents laissez-faire capitalism at its 
starkest. This part of Winner Take All is set on the Mexican border, where such 
frontier economics were thought to flourish naturally. 

The Mexican border was also the setting for King Vidor's 1931 box office 
hit, The Champ, a film with a rather different ideological slant (illus. 106). If 
Cagney's boxer is a model worker, Wallace Beery 's is a drunken layabout. Beery 
stars as Andy, an ex-heavyweight champion who lives a dissolute life in Tijuana 
with his young son Dink (Jackie Cooper). One day, Dink's mother Linda (Irene 
Rich) reappears with her wealthy, hard-working second husband Tony (Hale 
Hamilton) and they offer to take the boy away to 'a better life'. The film is very 
sentimental about Andy's relationship with his son, and the separate all-male 
world that they create together. Nevertheless, the final outcome - in which Andy 
briefly pulls himself together and wins a fight, but dies shortly afterwards - was 
the one test audiences preferred. Dink, they knew, would be better off with a 
solid bourgeois life in the American heartland. 

In both these early-thirties movies, boxing is portrayed as a business in 
which you can succeed with sufficient hard work. In films made just a few years 
later, however, hard work is hardly the issue as the business itself is shown to be 
corrupt to its core. The tragic consequences of that corruption were the subject 
of numerous noir films during the late 1940s - screenwriter Carl Foreman, for 
example, described Champion as drawing 'a parallel between the prize fight busi- 
ness and western society or capitalism in 1948'. 23 At the height of the Depres- 
sion, a comic perspective was often more welcome. The Milky Way by Lynn Root 
and Harry Clork, a Federal Theater production that was filmed in 1936, is a comic 
fantasy about a Chaplinesque milkman who becomes middleweight champion. 24 
The story is not one of talent rising to the top, but of financial dealings and de- 
ception. The milkman, Burleigh Sullivan (Harold Lloyd), is persuaded to become 
a boxer because he has embarrassed the current middleweight champion, whom 
the press, erroneously, believe he has knocked out. A scheme is hatched to build 
up the milkman's value over the course of six set-ups, and then to stage a sell-out 
match with the champ. The milkman enters the contract because his employers, 
the profit-driven Sunflower Dairy, want to send his sick horse to the knackers' 
yard. The film's comic resolution comes with the introduction of charity into the 
world of business. Burleigh, with six 'wins' under his belt, thinks himself a big 
shot and walks around with a lion on a leash (a la Battling Siki). His girlfriend tells 
him he has become a 'tiger' when he used to be a horse-loving 'humanitarian'. 


Burleigh gets to redeem himself in the fight with the champ because the proceeds 
will go to Mrs Winthrope Lemoyne's Milk Fund Charity, an obvious allusion to 
Millicent Willson Hearst's Free Milk Fund for Babies. Everyone wins in this 
scenario. Paramount Pictures also did well, promoting the film in conjunction 
with the Borden Milk Company. Cardboard cutouts featuring Harold Lloyd were 
placed over milk bottles. 25 

While boxing was a popular sport in local gyms throughout America, box- 
ing films of this period firmly locate the business of boxing in the heart of the 
city (usually Manhattan) - the downtown urban centre provides the settings 
both of the boxer's work (the changing room and the boxing ring) and that of 
his leisure (the hotel room and the nightclub). The gangster-managers are very 
much at home in this environment, but their fighters are brought in from else- 
where, from the countryside or the working-class neighbourhoods that sur- 
round the metropolitan centre. These two spaces - the country and the 
neighbourhood - are presented as roughly equivalent. Boys from the country 
are strong, wholesome, and easily, if only briefly, tempted. In Michael Curtiz's 
Kid Galahad (1937), Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris) moves to New York, 
home of 'fast-living spenders and punch-drunk gunmen', in order to earn 
enough money to buy his own farm. After enduring a temporary 'diet of cigar 
smoke and gymnasium fumes', he becomes champion, only to retire and marry 
the farm-girl sister of his manager. Meanwhile, the rival gangsters (Edward 
G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart) dispose of each other in a shoot-out. 26 In 
Palooka (1934), the protagonist is happily selling eggs on his farm when his 
strength is discovered by Knobby Walsh (Jimmy Durante), presumably en route 
from one metropolis to another. The scrawny Knobby tries to persuade Joe 
Palooka to come with him, saying, 'It ain't healthy living in the country. Why 
look at me - raised on gasoline fumes and carbon monoxide, the picture of 
vigorous vitality!' After a series of unsuccessful urban adventures, Joe too ends 
up back on the farm with his rural sweetheart. 27 

Other thirties films give cynical city boxers the chance to escape Babylon: in 
Winner Take All, Jim and Peggy meet in the countryside and form the kind of au- 
thentic relationship that neither found possible back in New York; in The Life of 
Jimmy Dolan (1933), a prize-fighter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr) accidentally kills a 
man at a party and flees to a health farm for invalid children. Gradually, he be- 
gins to lose his cynicism under the influence of the children and another pretty 
girl called Peggy (Loretta Young). 28 Andrew Bergman argues that these films have 
little to do with reality but set one myth, 'the shyster city', against another, 'the 
country as an idyll'; the real state of the economy, he points out, is ignored ('why, 
in 1933, go to a farm?'). 29 But although these films are not interested in the real- 
ities of rural life, neither are they mere fantasies about cows and barns. The coun- 
tryside itself is less important than the alternative, Utopian communities that 
exist within it - Dr Betts's Rosario Ranch for asthmatic children and rundown 
boxers in Winner Take All, or the reform school farms of The Life of Jimmy 
Dolan and Boys' Town. These small, integrated communitarian ventures, like the 


co-operative farm in King Vidor's 1934 film, Our Daily Bread or the migrant 
workers' camp in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, are presented 
as collective alternatives to the individualistic and pugnacious city. 30 In another 
series of films, the urban hub is set in opposition to the romanticized working- 
class neighbourhood, where cultural and ethnic, rather than physical, health is 
the primary issue. 31 Both the farm and the neighbourhood are clearly defined 
spaces and operate with clearly defined values centred around family bonds and 
local solidarity; in contrast, the city (and this term is used to apply solely to the 
urban centre) is an amorphous entity, represented either by limitless vistas or 
by tightly enclosed spaces. Its values are those of impersonal capitalism. 

The spatial mapping of the city versus the neighbourhood is particularly 
clear in Golden Boy (1939), Rouben Mamoulian's film adaptation of Clifford 
Odets's 1937 play (illus. 107). 32 Golden Boy was the most successful of Odets's 
plays for the Group Theatre, itself an 'oasis' within a city that was dominated by 
commercial theatre. 33 The film opens with shots of downtown Manhattan's sky- 
scrapers before zeroing in on a sign advertising 'Tom Moody, Boxing Enter- 
prises'. Moody needs $5,000 in order to pay for a divorce and remarriage to 
Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck); 'I see a penthouse in your eyes', he tells her. 
No sooner has Moody discovered that his latest contender has been injured in 
the gym than Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) appears, offering to take his 
place. Joe phones home to tell his father he will be late, and we see Papa Bona- 
parte (Lee J. Cobb) answering the phone. Papa's place of work and home could 
not be more different. The Italian American Grocery is piled high both with 
goods and with communal values: it is a meeting-place as well as a selling-place, 
a bazaar as traditionally understood. More important, as the camera penetrates 
to the living-quarters behind the shop and then lingers admiringly, is the seam- 
less fit of public and private life. The apartment is a shrine to traditional, bour- 
geois domestic comfort, stuffed full of chintz, doilies, velvet drapes, a painting 
of the Virgin and child, and a gilt -framed photograph of Joe playing the violin 
as a curly-haired child. Particular attention is given to this last image in con- 
trast to representations of Joe as a close-cropped fighter (denuded of his Italian 
hair as well as culture) on numerous mass-produced posters in Moody's office. 
Joe is tempted away from his heritage by a desire for 'people to know who I am', 
and also by Lorna, an ambitious 'girl from Newark'. She takes him up on to the 
roof of a skyscraper to show him the open spaces of Manhattan. As he looks 
down, she tells him that 'it's a big city and little people don't stand a chance', but 
that he could make 'all that your carpet to walk on'. The film tells us that by 
abandoning the neighbourhood - a place of cultured ethnicity - for the metro- 
politan promise of celebrity, Joe has abandoned his identity; 'people' now know 
his name, but he no longer knows 'who he is'. Nevertheless, this process is eas- 
ily reversed - in the film, if not the play. After a hearty dinner Lorna is converted 
and now tells him, 'you shouldn't be in the ring; you should be at home, with 
your violin'. There are a few complications involving gangsters to iron out first, 
but Joe takes her advice. The film ends with the couple held in the embrace of 


Papa, as the camera shifts slightly to bring the painting of the Holy Family into 
view behind them. 34 Papa's faded oriental rug is now all the carpet Joe and Lorna 
need to walk on. 

The ethnic neighbourhoods of Chicago provide the setting for much of 
Nelson Algren's fiction, and there too the 'way out' offered by boxing is questioned. 
In the Hemingway mould, Algren was also fond of the analogy between writers 
and fighters. In 'Nonconformity' (1951), Algren quoted Georges Carpentier on 
the fighter's need for 'viciousness' in order to argue that a writer needed simi- 
lar qualities: 'the strong-armer isn't out merely to turn a fast buck any more 
than the poet is solely out to see his name on the cover of a book, whatever sat- 
isfaction that event might afford him. What both need most deeply is to get 
even'. 35 'Getting even' was an impulse that Algren particularly associated with 
Chicago, 'the very toughest kind of town - it used to be a writer's town and it's 
always been a fighter's town'. 36 Hemingway provided a blurb for Algren's first 
novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), saying you shouldn't read it 'if you cannot take 
a punch'. Algren's subsequent works offer many punches; most directly, his last, 
posthumously published novel, The Devil's Stocking, was about the incarcera- 
tion of middleweight contender Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter. 

Never Come Morning (1942), is set in the thirties and draws on many of 
Warner Brothers' stock naturalistic plots and characters - the fallen woman, 
the juvenile delinquent and the boxer. 37 It tells the story of Bruno Bicek and his 
dream of becoming a boxing champion, and of how, turning 21, he instead ends 
up in jail on a murder charge. 'If they had stayed in the Old World,' Mama Bicek 
thinks, 'her son would have been a good son. There a boy had to behave him- 
self or be put in the army.' 38 The local barber, and prime villain, Bonifacy, is 
reminiscent of the grandmother in Yekl'm his incomprehension of 'young Poles 
with a purely amateur enthusiasm for a wop outfielder or a Jew welterweight 
. . . Life in the old world had been too hard to permit young men to play games'. 
(What he can appreciate is the value of boxing, and gambling, as a way of mak- 
ing money.) The neighbourhood boys also follow Yekl in compulsively adding 
American nicknames to their Polish surnames - Bruno (a.k.a. 'Lefty'; 'Biceps'; 
'Powerhouse'; 'Iron-Man'; 'Killer') more compulsively than anyone. When 
arrested on a murder charge, he proudly tells the police that he is 'a citizen', 'a 
Polish-American citizen' and distinguishes himself from greenhorns who don't 
speak English properly. Nevertheless, all the enmities in the novel are expressed 
in terms of their Old World nationalities and loyalties - we don't know names, 
just the Jew, the Mex, the Polack, the Litvak and the Greek. Only the idea of the 
Great White Hope overrides these affiliations. In the fight that closes the book, 
Bruno is aware that the crowd are applauding him simply for 'being white'. 39 
Algren originally called his book White Hope, perhaps with a nod to the unpub- 
lished novel that his friend Richard Wright was working on at the same time, 
Black Hope A 

Unlike the films discussed above, Never Come Morning does not romanti- 
cize, or indeed ever leave, the confines of the neighbourhood. Algren does not 


allow any moral or cultural alternative to Chicago's 'Little Polonia', an area 
bounded triangularly, and tightly, by three streets - Chicago, Ashland and Mil- 
waukee Avenues. Within the triangle are further confined spaces - the brothel, 
the jail, the beer flat, the gang clubhouse, the poolroom, the barber shop (and 
the bird cage within it), the police station, the amusement park, and the boxing 
ring - each of which simply reinforces the enclosure of the others. The novel is 
framed by two fight scenes. In the opening sequence, Casey Benkowski duti- 
fully takes a dive and returns to the barber's shop. The final chapter rests on 
whether Bruno will do the same. He doesn't, but his gesture of existentialist 
heroism proves futile. The police are waiting to take him to prison, just one 
more 'ropeless ring'. Algren uses these different places to create an insistently 
interlocking network of symbols. 'The Triangle's my territory,' boasts Bruno, 
and there is very little sense of the existence of a world, indeed of a city, beyond 
the boundaries of its three streets. Identities are so local that characters intro- 
duce each other by their street names ('Catfoot N.from Fry St', 'Bruno B.from 
Potomac and Paulina', 'Steffi R. from by the poolroom'). 41 The wider world, the 
wider city even, only really exists for Bruno and the fellow members of his gang, 
the Warriors, through the magazines and movies that they consume. One of Al- 
gren's sources may have been a long-running series of films about a gang vari- 
ously known as the Dead End Kids, the East End Kids and the Bowery Boys, 
films which emphasized the sociology behind the gangster myth and thus tried 
to undermine its glamour. 42 These films were about saving street kids from a 
life of crime, and in the muscular Christian tradition, a combination of religion 
and sport often play a large part in the cure. In Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), 
gangster Jimmy Cagney, just out of prison, is enlisted on to the basketball court 
by Father Connelly (Pat O'Brien); in The Bells of St Mary's (1945), Father O'Mal- 
ley (Bing Crosby) and Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) both don gloves in order 
to install discipline among their unruly charges. Spencer Tracy won an Oscar as 
Father Flanagan in Boys' Town (1938), which was based on the true story of a 
rural reform school which used boxing to produce 'sturdy young bodies and 
stout young hearts' (illus. 104). The 'boxer-and-the-priest' movie is one of the 
many genres parodically referred to by Nabokov in Lolita (1952). The plot of 
one, told to Humbert by Charlotte Haze, is typical: 'The boxer had fallen ex- 
tremely low when he met the good old priest (who had been a boxer himself in 
his robust youth and could still slug a sinner).' 43 

Unfortunately Bruno Bicek does not have a priest or a reformed gangster to 
help him. He is obviously a keen movie-goer, however, and compares himself 
and his friends to Cagney, John Barrymore and others. The only time in the 
story that Bruno sees a movie, however, it is a boxing picture in a kinetoscope 
arcade, 'a scarred and faded film of the Dempsey-Willard fight'. 

With his fighter's heart and his fighter's mind, Bruno sensed the mind 
and heart of the other. He watched Willard on his knees, swinging his 
head like a blinded ox, and no spark of pity came to the watcher . . . 


His fingers spread, resisting the urge to get in there for the kill himself. 
He watched the referee standing Dempsey off, and that bothered both 
Dempsey and Bicek. He turned the film as slowly as possible . . . 
Dempsey was circling, circling, trying to get the beaten man on the 
other side of the referee's arm. A warmth rose in Bruno: Jack was in on 
the bum - one - two - left to the heart - right to the jaw - to the heart 
- to the jaw - and his hand stopped cold on the film. There was noth- 
ing before him but a cracked square of yellow cardboard and he was 
sweating on his hands. 'We killed the bum fer life,' he assured himself, 
'I'm a killer too.' 


'Sturdy Young 
Bodies and Stout 
Young Hearts', 
postcard of Father 
Flanagan's Boys' 
Home, Nebraska. 

Algren employs several layers of irony in this passage. In the novel's closing box- 
ing match, Bruno does become like his hero, Dempsey, when he metaphorically 
'kills' his opponent, but the night after seeing the movie, he had already literally 
killed someone, and it is for this that he is arrested as the final bell of his own 
fight sounds. Identifying with Dempsey is a complicated business. Bruno is not 
primarily interested in the boxer's David-versus-Goliath-like success; rather it is 
his anger, his ruthlessness and his urge to 'prove himself at whatever cost that 
appeal. 'No spark of pity came to the watcher', Algren comments. Identification 
means experiencing another man's battles (indeed, another man's sadism) as 
your own and in order to do this Bruno turns the fairground kinetoscope 'as 
slowly as possible', adapting it to suit his own needs. Dempsey 's slow circling be- 
comes the medium through which he experiences the self that he would like to 
be (later, in jail, he is 'swamped by an image of himself: as though he had been 
abruptly transplanted before a technicolor movie being reeled a little too fast'). 44 
By the late thirties, the language of movie gangsters had become well-worn 
cliche. Damon Runyon's 1937 palooka of a gangster Tobias Tweeney complains 


that his wife wants to know why he cannot be a 'big gunman' like Edward 
G. Robinson or James Cagney. 45 But while Runyon viewed such behaviour as 
rather comical, others were less sanguine. James T. Farrell's trilogy Studs Lonigan 
(1932-5) recounts the short, delusional life of a Chicago-Irish boy who is con- 
stantly involved in a 'dream of himself '. This culminates in his death at the age 
of 29, and a fevered death fantasy, in which hard-as-nails Studs imagines himself 
walking 'along a strange city with a gun', as 'Al Capone Lonigan' and then 'enter- 
ing a ring with two million people looking on', as 'Jack Dempsey Lonigan'. 46 

For Marxist critics of popular culture, identification such as this was perni- 
cious, not only because it distracted the masses from the realities of their own 
lives, but because, by doing so, it made authentic choices and action impossi- 
ble. In numerous naturalist novels of this period, those who succumb to the 
allure of popular culture end badly. The tragedy of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and 
Men (1937), for example, begins in mass-produced fantasies of movie and box- 
ing glory. The son of a ranch boss in the Salinas valley, Curley is a Cagney-esque 
lightweight' who has 'done quite a bit in the ring'; we hear that he 'got in the 
finals for the Golden Gloves' and that 'he got newspaper clippings about it'. He 
walks about the ranch with his fists clenched and slips into 'a slight crouch' at 
the slightest provocation. His glance is 'at once calculating and pugnacious' and 
he fights dirty with a 'glove fulla Vaseline'. His unnamed wife of two weeks, 
meanwhile, is convinced she 'coulda been in the movies'; stuck on the ranch she 
contents herself by 'giving the eye' to every man around. The dangerous conse- 
quence of these fantasies is revealed when the couple encounters Lennie Small, 
a simple-minded gentle giant who comes to work on the ranch with his friend 
George Milton. The novella's tragedy lies less in Lennie's inability to control his 
immense strength than in his lack of understanding of mass media conventions. 
Lennie 'don't know no rules'. 47 He destroys, by failing to acknowledge them, 
both Curley 's pretensions to be a Hollywood boxer and his wife's pretensions to 
be a YioWyw oodfemmefatale. Readers in the thirties may have associated the 
mentally slow but 'strong as a bull' Lennie with Primo Camera, who beat Jack 
Sharkey for the heavyweight title in 1933. Gangsters Owney Madden and Dutch 
Schultz stole much of Camera's money and it has been speculated that most of 
his fights were fixed. 48 Unlike Camera, however, Lennie relies on a man whose 
interest in his welfare is genuine. The ranch boss cannot understand this: 'what 
stake you got in this guy?' he asks George. The antithesis of a fight manager try- 
ing to make a buck, George, it seems, has 'no stake' in Lennie. The novella ends 
bleakly with his acknowledgment that Lennie cannot live in 'society'. In a ges- 
ture of love, George shoots his friend. 49 


'I just got through triple-crossing a double-crosser', Knobby Walsh (Jimmy Du- 
rante) cheerfully admits in Palooka (1934). Apparently, he was not alone. In 
1931, J. F. Steiner complained that professional boxing had 'failed to free itself 


entirely of the undesirable associations that have so long clung to it'. While it 
had been hoped that legalisation would end boxing's links to crime, the con- 
nection flourished. 'More than any other sport', Steiner notes, boxing 'has been 
exploited for purposes of excessive financial gain by both its promoters and par- 
ticipants'. 50 This was partly because it is relatively easy to fix a boxing match - 
certainly much easier than fixing a baseball game which requires the co-opera- 
tion of a whole team - and boxing, especially outside of New York, was virtually 
unregulated until the 1950s. 51 For a large part of the twentieth century, the plot 
twists of boxing fiction and film relied heavily on the many ways there were to 
fix a fight. 52 

Before legalization, boxing had largely been controlled by local politicians; 
afterwards, Prohibition bootleggers and gangsters took over. Notable figures 
in the twenties and thirties include Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden in New 
York, Boo Hoo Hoff in Philadelphia, and AlCaponein Chicago. 'By the Depres- 
sion,' Riess notes, 'the sport's connection with organized crime was an open se- 
cret.' 53 In the middleweight division, Frankie Carbo ('Mr Big') held a virtual 
monopoly from the mid-thirties until the late fifties, exploiting his close ties 
with managers, matchmakers and promoters to fix fights at every level. One of 
his most useful contacts was Billy Brown, matchmaker at Madison Square Gar- 
den. Any fighter who refused to play along suffered greatly; a prime example 
was Jake La Motta, the top middleweight contender from 1943 to 1947. After 
years of being refused a shot at the title, La Motta accepted an offer to fight light 
heavyweight, Billy Fox, managed by one of Carbo's men, Blinky Palermo. 54 For 
$100,000 and the promise of a title shot, La Motta took part. But his naivete 
proved his undoing. He refused to attack and protected himself so well that 
when a technical knockout was awarded to Fox in the fourth round, the crowd 
was convinced it was a set-up. An investigation cleared La Motta; he was fined 
$1,000 and suspended for seven months for 'concealing an injury', which was 
his excuse for a poor performance. He did not receive his title fight until 1949 
(after paying $20,000 to champion Marcel Cerdan). 

One of the first stories to explore the relationship between boxing and 
organized crime was Ernest Hemingway's 'The Killers' (1927). 55 Two men show 
up in a small-town cafe and hold the staff hostage as they wait for the man they 
want to kill, Ole Andreson, a former heavyweight boxer. When Nick Adams, 
who has been in the cafe, tells Andreson about the men, the boxer says that 
nothing can be done to save him and turns his face to the wall. Little more than 
a page of this eleven-page story is devoted to Nick's encounter with Andreson, 
but it changes everything. The gangsters dub Nick 'bright boy', but the story 
reveals how little he knows about power and powerlessness. In an attempt to 
escape his revelation - that the heavyweight, the epitome of masculinity, is not 
prepared to fight back - Nick decides to move on. 'I can't stand to think about 
him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it.' As in the case of 'The 
Battler' and 'The Light of the World', the story ends with Nick preparing to 'get 
out of this town'. 56 


If the dominant boxing setting of the 1920s was Madison Square Garden, 
during the thirties, forties and fifties, crime writers such as Hammett and Chan- 
dler, and so-called proletarian writers such as Algren and Farrell, focused on 
low-level professional boxing as a setting within which to examine delusion and 
corruption. If the dominant boxing motif of the twenties was the knockout, that 
of the following decades was the set-up. Damon Runyon even created a whole 
new vocabulary to describe fighters who accepted bribes: 'tank-fighter', 'ostrich' 
and the ultimate shady character who 'folds up' easily, a 'parasol'. 'Of course all 
the customers know very well that Chester is only fighting some parasol, for in 
Philadelphia, Pa., the customers are smartened up to the prize-fight game and 
they know they are not going to see a world war for three dollars tops'. 57 

While Hemingway's fighter in 'Fifty Grand' gambled on a $25,000 profit, 
James T. Farrell's Kid Tucker is willing to settle for $25. 'Twenty-five Bucks' (1930) 
revisits the territory of Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' by matching a 'never- 
was of a palooka' with a young contender, but Farrell's naturalism, rejecting the 
consolations of sentimental animalism, is much harsher than London's. Kid 
Tucker's life comes to an end one evening after fifteen years of living 'in grease'. 
Psychologically damaged by his experiences in the trenches of the First World 
War and with a face 'punched to a hash', Tucker is usually paid simply to get 
beaten. 'He earned his living by taking smashes on the jaw.' In a metaphor 
that London would have approved of, Farrell says of Tucker's manager that he 
prepared his fighters 'as cattle were fed for the Chicago stockyards'. On one 
particular occasion, however, in order to make the bout look more authentic, he 
is instructed to put up the pretence of a fight, 'or no dough'. But 'the war and the 
prize ring had taken all the fight out of him', and Tucker cannot comply. At 
the end of the bout, as he lies unconscious on the floor, the manager, determined 
to prove the fight was 'on the level', makes a speech saying that he will not pay 
Tucker. Instead the purse will go to 'the boy who puts up the best fight here this 
evening' and the crowd can choose. But it does not matter. Tucker dies of a 
cerebral haemorrhage without regaining consciousness. For the Marxist Farrell, 
as for London, the manager and the members of the crowd (the manufacturer 
and the consumers) are ready partners in an economic system in which the 
individual boxer is mere labour, and as such expendable. 58 

This is certainly the way things work in Personville, Montana - better 
known as Poisonville - the setting of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929), 
often described as the first 'hard-boiled' detective novel. An operative from San 
Francisco's Continental Detective Agency is sent to Poisonville to investigate a 
murder and clean up the town. Among the many poisons of the lousy burg' 
that he encounters is its crooked prize-fighting. 

We talked about the fights. Nothing more was said about me versus 
Poisonville . . . [The gambler] even gave me what seemed to be a straight 
tip on the fights - telling me any bet on the main event would be good 
if its maker remembered that Kid Cooper would probably knock Ike 


Bush out in the sixth round. He seemed to know what he was talking 
about, and it didn't seem to be news to the others. 59 

The Continental Op tries to persuade Bush not to go ahead with the fix, and 
after much prevarication, Bush knocks out Cooper, an obvious 'palooka'. There 
is a 'short silvery streak' from the balcony, followed by a thud. 'Ike Bush took his 
arm out of the referee's hand and pitched down on top of Kid Cooper. A black 
knife-handle stuck out of the nape of Bush's neck.' 60 

This is a particularly dramatic ending, but the scenario that Hammett pres- 
ents - in which the boxer defies the gangsters by refusing to throw the fight, and 
then immediately pays for it with his health or his life - soon became a staple in 
popular fiction and film. The plot often turned on the moment in which the boxer 
realizes that he has been duped by the mob, his crooked manager or the night- 
club singer who has been stringing him along. In more socially conscious films, 
such Golden Boy and Body and Soul (1947), the death of a black man provides the 
prompt. In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte's conscience revives when he kills the 
Chocolate Drop Kid (James 'Cannonball' Green) in the ring. He leaves boxing 
behind, telling the gangsters, 'you used me like a gun'. In Body and Soul, Charley 
Davis (John Garfield) wakes up to the reality of his life when he finds out that 
his black sparring partner, Ben Chapman (Canada Lee) has died - neither man 
was told that Chapman had a blood clot. As Gerald Early notes in a different con- 
text, there is 'a very simple and very old idea here, namely, that the black male is 
metaphorically the white man's unconscious personified'. 61 

Charley's story is told in flashback, following an opening sequence in which 
he has agreed to throw a fight for $60,000. Although his mother has told him 
to 'fight for something, not for money', Charley is seduced by the prospect of 
lots of clothes, lots of money, lots of everything'. But after Ben's death, Charley 
fights to win. When the gangsters complain, he is scornful. 'What can you do?' 
he asks, 'Kill me? Everybody dies.' 62 Although Body and Soul was based on 
Golden Boy (as well as the biography of Barney Ross), scriptwriter Abraham 
Polonsky did not want to recreate Odets's original tragic ending or the film ver- 
sion's saccharine family reunion. Director Robert Rossen had wanted to close 
with Davis being shot by the mob, and falling into a barrel of garbage. Polon- 
sky talked him out of this 'heroic' conclusion, arguing that it would be 'totally 
against the meaning of the picture, which is nothing more than a fable of the 
streets'. 63 Body and Soul ends with Garfield walking away with his girlfriend into 
the sunset, seemingly unharmed by his insubordination. 

Stories such as these celebrate individual rebellion against collective tyranny, 
but where that tyranny lies is not always made clear. In the late forties, most 
audiences concentrated on the corruption of the criminally connected prize-fight 
world itself; just before Body and Soul's release, the New York district Attorney's 
office launched an investigation of the La Motta-Fox fight. Today, however, the 
film is more often considered as a parable of defiance against the House Un- 
American Activities Committee, which only months later subpoenaed many of 


those involved in its making. Rossen, who had been an active member of the 
Communist Party, eventually offered other names to clear his own. Polonsky, 
also a communist, refused to name names and was blacklisted, as was Garfield. 

The redemptive power of resistance is depoliticized and mythologized in 
Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949). A third-rate boxer and his wife go to the iron- 
ically named Paradise City for one last fight. (Paradise City Athletic Club is next 
to a dance hall called Dreamland, and across the street from the Hotel Cozy.) 
Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is fighting a much younger, stronger man, and 
everyone but him is aware that the fight is fixed. Everyone, including himself, 
will gain if he loses. In the classic noir gesture of integrity and futile defiance, 
when Stoker finds out about the set-up, he fights so hard that he wins. But his 
victory is limited to the confines of the square circle. After he leaves the gym, the 
gangsters work him over in the grim alley-way. 64 However Christ-like he is 
(and we are not allowed to forget it), Paradise City is really just another name 
for Poisonville after all. 

The symbolism of the set-up was not confined to stories directly about the 
fight game. When, in James M. Cain's 1936 novel, Double Indemnity, insurance 
salesman Walter Huff conspires with Phyllis Nirdlinger to insure and then kill 
her husband, he talks of their plan as a 'set-up'. Huff maintains that insurance 
is itself a form of gambling. Billy Wilder 's 1944 film adaptation, with the conspir- 
ators renamed Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, further highlights the sport- 
or game-like nature of the plan. 65 Dietrichson had been a college football player 
and is now a keen devotee of baseball on the radio; his daughter Lola, mean- 
while, plays checkers with her stepmother and talks of going roller-skating. 
When she quarrels with her father, he describes Lola as 'a good fighter for her 
weight' (and this is something she will prove to be after the murder has been 
committed). Walter himself talks of the murder plan as something that should 
be followed 'move by move', and later, believes that his immediate boss, Keyes, 
is 'playing on our team' (the big boss, Norton, meanwhile, 'fumbled with the 
ball'). Most relevantly, the living room of Walter's apartment is decorated with 
four framed prints of nineteenth-century bareknuckle fighters. In the crucial 
scene in which Phyllis arrives to secure and plan the set-up, the camera makes 
sure that these prints are clearly visible. They are not images of fights, but of 
solitary men in fighting pose, much as Walter had seen himself up to this point. 
At the start Walter believes that by killing her husband, he is fighting for Phyl- 
lis and the money. By the end of the film, aware that he has won neither, he 
realizes that she is his real opponent, and in an embrace that is both sexual and 
a boxers' clinch, they shoot each other. Of his life before Phyllis, Walter says there 
were 'no visible scars'. The point of the film is not that he dies at the end, but that 
he dies with the 'visible scars' of a man who has chosen the wrong fight. 66 

The screenplay of Double Indemnity was written by Wilder and Raymond 
Chandler, and it may have been Chandler's idea to compare the insurance inves- 
tigator to a boxer. Certainly Chandler had made frequent use of boxing metaphors 
in his 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Dressed in a 'powder-blue suit', Philip Marlowe 


describes himself as the start of the novel as 'neat, clean, shaved and sober'; in 
other words, 'everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be'. At this 
stage, there is still a possibility of 'me versus Poisonville'. But things start to fall 
apart only a page later when Marlowe meets his client's daughter, Carmen Stern- 
wood, and she fails to recognize his carefully constructed and signalled identity. 
Instead she notices that he is 'awfully tall' and when he jokes that his name is Dog- 
house Reilly, she asks if he is a prize-fighter. 'Not exactly, I'm a sleuth,' he replies. 
Being a sleuth, Marlowe suggests, is not exactly the same as being a prize-fighter, 
but there is a similarity between the two professions. The prize-fighter analogy 
works against the novel's earlier suggestion that the detective is a kind of knight. 67 
While Sherlock Holmes could equate the chivalric and meticulous codes of 
boxing to detective work, Marlowe does not really do much detection. 'I'm not 
Sherlock Holmes', he tells Sternwood. 68 'Little methods of thought' are not what 
being a modern sleuth, or a modern prize-fighter, is all about. All Marlowe can do 
is take part in a series of dirty fights, double-crosses and set-ups. 

If medieval codes of chivalry, and the English Queensberry rules, are obso- 
lete in 'this rotten crime-ridden country', Marlowe still holds onto one rule, that 
opponents should be equally matched. He makes frequent references to the rel- 
ative sizes and weights of the men and women he encounters, but most of the 
contests that he witnesses or participates in are mismatches. We assume Mar- 
lowe is a heavyweight; at any rate, he is, as Carmen points out, 'awfully tall'. 
(Chandler later described Marlowe as 'slightly over six feet and weighting] about 
thirteen stone eight'. 69 ) Most of his opponents are either smaller than him or 
homosexual, which seems to amount to the same thing. The only time Marlowe 
doesn't fight at all is when he encounters a real boxer, Eddie Mars's bodyguard, 
'an obvious pug, a good-looking pale-faced boy with a bad nose and one ear like 
a club steak'. Compared to the boxer, Marlowe feels himself feminine: 'I turned 
around for him like a bored beauty modeling an evening gown'. Shortly after- 
wards, however, he is able to re-establish his masculinity when he takes on Carol 
Lundgren, 'a very handsome boy indeed', and the lover of the dead 'queen', 
Geiger. When Lundgren punches Marlowe on the chin, he backsteps and man- 
ages to avoid being knocked down. 'It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy 
has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.' Marlowe tells Lundgren that 
he won't fight with him - 'You're giving away too much weight' - but Lundgren 
'wants to fight'. Each man has a different strategy: Marlowe takes Lungren's 
neck 'in chancery'; Lundgren uses his hands 'where it hurt'; but there is a 
moment in which 'it was a balance of weights'. 'We seemed to hang there in the 
misty moonlight, two grotesque creatures'. On the threshold of what he de- 
scribes as the 'poisonous room' in which homosexual sex and murder have taken 
place, Marlowe feels himself momentarily a 'grotesque' creature too. Then he 
finishes his opponent off, and starts to call him 'son'. 70 

In the novel's final pages Marlowe is finally matched with two opponents 
who equal him in size. The first is Eddie Mars's wife, Silver-Wig, who is 'tall 
rather than short, but no bean-pole', and whose hair, under her wig, is short 


and clipped, like a boy's'; the second is the confusingly purring but dog-like 
Canino (Marlowe's nom de guerre is, of course, Doghouse). 71 The fight begins with 
a warning scream from Silver-Wig, 'a beautiful thin tearing scream that rocked 
me like a left hook'. When Canino fires his gun, Marlowe contemplates allow- 
ing him to continue, just like a gentleman of the old school'. But he is no knight, 
no Sherlock Holmes, and so he shoots 'four times, the Colt straining against my 
ribs'. 72 (Walter Huff, in the novel Double Indemnity, experiences being shot as 
'something hit[ting] me in the chest like Jack Dempsey had hauled off and given 
me all he had'. 73 ) At the end Marlowe admits, over a couple of double scotches, 
that he is 'part of the nastiness now'. 


In most Hollywood comedies of the thirties, it did not really matter if the boxer 
won or lost as long as he got paid. In Cain and Mabel (1936), for example, Larry 
Cain (Clark Gable) is about to clinch the match when he hears Mabel (Marion 
Davis) calling out to him. He turns to look and is knocked out. 'Gee, Mabel, I lost 
every penny I had in the world', he complains. 'Never mind,' she replies, 'I bet 
on the other guy and I've enough for both of us.' In NothingSacred (1937), Wally 
(Fredric March) and Hazel (Carole Lombard) decide to box so that Hazel will 
seem tired enough to convince a doctor she has radium poisoning and therefore 
deserve her free trip to New York (illus. 108). By the late 1940s, however, when 
economic conditions were much better, such cheerful pragmatism no longer 
seemed possible. 74 

In her 1949 study of gender differences, Male and Female, the anthropolo- 
gist Margaret Mead commented on the importance for American boys of a will- 
ingness to fight. 'Both sexes are told not to fight, and then boys are watched very 
anxiously, girls almost as anxiously, to see if they show signs of being quitters, of 
not being able to take it.' 75 Boxing stories, in some way or another, are always 
about the anxieties of boys and the ways in which they test and define their mas- 
culinity. But at different times, different aspects of masculinity are foregrounded. 
In the thirties, Clifford Odets's Joe Bonaparte clenched his fists and explained 
that he became a fighter because 'I'd rather give it than take it'. 76 His aggression 
was clearly motivated and comprehensible. By the late forties, however, the test 
of manliness was not aggression - how much pain the boxer's body could inflict 
- but endurance - how much it could withstand. Being able to 'take it' was now 
all that one could expect of men. 77 In 1932, Kirstein had described Cagney's 
appeal as lying in his portrayal of 'the delights of violence'; in 1947, John House- 
man concluded an article on 'today's hero', saying that, 'in all history I doubt 
there has been a hero whose life was so unenviable and whose aspirations had so 
low a ceiling'. 78 The 'semi-conscious sadism' of the thirties gangster film had, in 
other words, given way to the masochism of the forties film noir. 79 

Sports films tend to be optimistic about individual or team efforts to suc- 
ceed, even against extreme odds, andfilm noir generally stayed clear of sporting 


stories. Boxing was an exception, since, as Andrew Dickos points out, 'the fight 
game encompasses many key noir features - its urban roots, the corruption of 
power and money and of the criminal element so often controlling it, and the 
violence and near-narcotic dynamism intrinsic in its exercise'. 80 The three most 
notable boxing noirs were Body and Soul, Champion and The Set-Up, although 
many movies, from The Killers (1946) to The Big Combo (1955), effectively used 
boxing settings to create an atmosphere of barely contained violence. 81 

Although these films often presented themselves as 'socially conscious', 
aiming to expose the brutality of boxing, they often seemed to relish the suffer- 
ing that individual boxers endured. 82 In a 1949 essay attacking both the 'compul- 
sion to grind away at a message' and the exaggerated degradation of most fight 
films, Manny Farber argued that their real impetus often seemed to be 'a pure 
imaginative delight in the mangling of the human body'. 83 This is apparent if we 
consider the endings of Champion, Body and Soul and The Set-Up. Each con- 
cludes, in seemingly traditional style, with the protagonist winning his big fight, 
but in each case, this physical sporting victory is shown as hollow rather than 
glorious. As I suggested earlier, the ostensible 'message' of these films is that 
some kind of spiritual or moral transcendence of the body is not only possible 
but absolutely necessary. It might be argued that in their rejection of the cult of 
the body these films, like Raging Bull some 30 years later, are the antithesis of the 
typical sports movie. However, the camera's lingering attention to the endurance 
as well as the 'mangling' of the human body, like the attention given by Renais- 
sance artists to the crucified Christ, inevitably undermines the intentions of the 
artists: an asserted rejection or transcendence of the physical is always going to 
be less memorable than an all-too-present physicality. Body and Soul's final 
image is of Charley and his girl walking respectably down the street together; 
after a final fight, he has left boxing and crime behind. The images that we 
remember, however, are those from the fight itself- Charley's spirited refusal to 
stop fighting and his bloodied, battered face, which cinematographer James 
Wong Howe shot with a handheld camera. Even more memorable is the final 
scene of Champion, in which Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) dies alone in his dress- 
ing room after a severe beating in the ring. 84 The scene parallels an earlier one 
in which a well-oiled Douglas, a 'quartzlike, malevolent show-off' according to 
Farber, preened as he trained. While generally disapproving of the film's senti- 
mentality, Farber found the death scene 'unbearably moving'. 

While scenes such as this put late-forties boxing films firmly into the cate- 
gory of the male weepie, it is worth remembering that the most important spec- 
tators within the films are always women. 'Boxing movies may describe the 
world of men and male values,' noted Ronald Bergan, 'but it is the women in the 
background that give them meaning.' 85 From the male point of view, the mean- 
ing of women is relatively straightforward and, in these films, largely negative: 
life would be simpler without them. Nevertheless, as the title of a 1939 Kenneth 
Patchen poem puts it, 'Boxers Hit Harder When Women Are Around'. 86 In the 
early twentieth century, representations of women spectators at men's boxing 


matches signalled a fascination with unabashed male display and active female 
choice in matters of sex. By mid-century, women were still seen as choosing, 
but the men seemed more anxious about being judged. Much of this anxiety is 
manifest in misogynist portrayals of women as sexual predators, femmefatales 
- lustful, cruel, bloodthirsty and, most of all, only really interested in hard cash. 
'They're all alike', complained Midge in Ring Lardner's story 'Champion', 
'Money, money, money'; a view supported by Bruno, in Never Come Morning: 
'Dames don't care if a guy's puss is pushed in, so long as they ain't no dent in his 
wallet'. According to Jim Tulley's bruiser, 'the women who marry fighters, God 
save my ragged soul, are often crueler than the managers'. 87 

Women did not fare much better in the movies. In Golden Boy, Lorna (Bar- 
bara Stanwyck) tells the naive Joe (William Holden) that she only likes men 
'who reach for a slice of fame': 'do it', she urges, 'bang your way to the mid- 
dleweight crown. Buy that car, give some girl the things she wants.' Lorna, as we 
have seen, is reformed by her exposure to Italian family life, but mostfemmes 
fatales, and most boxers, are not so lucky. Perhaps the most relentless explo- 
ration of what happens to a boxer when he hooks up with a bad girl is Robert 
Siodmak's The Killers (1947). The film begins with a fairly faithful adaptation of 
Hemingway's short story of the same title: the Swede (Burt Lancaster) is seen 
lying on his bed, passively awaiting his killers despite having muscles that ac- 
tively strain his vest. While Nick Adams never learns why the Swede has given 
up, the film introduces an insurance investigator to delve into his past and solve 
the puzzle of his downfall. 88 The solution lies with torch-song singer Kitty (Ava 
Gardner); in Frank Krutnik's words, 'a lustrous incarnation of 1940s Hollywood 
eroticism'. 89 It is Kitty, we gradually learn, who has unmanned the Swede, who 
has transformed him from a prizefighter, the epitome of active masculinity, into 
a prone and passive figure lying on a bed. 

Many noir films and novels rely on a clear distinction between bad girls and 
good girls, the ones who reject blood-soaked money and tell their men to stay 
at home. Good women shield their eyes at ringside, and really good women lis- 
ten, wincing, to the radio at the hearth. Occasionally, in extremis, they appear at 
ringside to steer their men back to the true path. In Spirit of Youth (1938), Joe 
(Joe Louis) deserts his hometown sweetheart, Mary (Edna Mae Harris) for a 
cabaret singer called Flora (Mae Turner); finally awarded a shot at the title, Joe 
fights listlessly until Mary appears at ringside to urge him on. Body and Soul 
presents the competing influence of three women on Charley Davis: the film 
was advertised as 'The story of a guy that women go for!' (illus. 109). The bad 
girl, Alice (Hazel Brooks), who snuggles up in her fur coat and yells for him to 
kill his opponent, has no chance against the combined strength of Charley's 
Jewish mama (Anne Revere) and his neighbourhood girlfriend, Peg (Lilli 
Palmer). Peg leaves Charley when she sees him being corrupted, but returns 
when he defies the gangsters and shows that he's really a mensch after all. 

Men may do the fighting, but stories like this suggest that without the guid- 
ing moral influence of a woman, they have no idea what is worth fighting for. 


The male desire for glory is frequently declared to be rather pathetic. When, in 
The Set-Up, Stoker Thomson tells his wife that he's just a punch away from suc- 
cess, Julie counters mercilessly, 'Don't you see, Bill, you'll always be one punch 
away'. She refuses to use the ticket that he has bought her and in a dramatic 
scene rips it up and throws it over a bridge (we are encouraged to think that she 
is contemplating suicide, but that is hardly believable - unlike her husband, 
she is not prone to self-destruction). Throughout his fight, Stoker looks towards 
Julie's seat - in section C, row four - but it remains empty. From the other seats, 
stereotypically bad women shout out 'kill him', let him have it'. While Stoker 
is boxing, and afterwards, while he is being beaten up by the gangsters whose 
set-up he has refused to honour, Julie has been warming soup on the hot plate 
at the Hotel Cozy. Finally she sees him staggering out of the alley and rushes to 
his side. The religious symbolism of the film continues when she holds him in 
a classic pietd shot - he has become the fallen Christ. 90 But what is she? Stoker, 
hardly able to speak, gasps out that he had won that night. Looking at his broken 
hand, Julie smiles beatifically and says 'we've both won.' He has won his integrity, 
but lost his career, physical prowess and, it might be argued, his masculinity; 
certainly she has won control of their future. 91 

A rather more complex take on women as boxing spectators can be found in 
John Steinbeck's 1937 story, 'The Chrysanthemums', which, like Of Mice and Men, 
is set in the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck once described Salinas as a town dominated 
by a 'blackness - the feeling of violence just below the surface'. Although there 
were many forms of entertainment in town, he recalled, 'easily the most popular' 
was evangelist 'Billy Sunday in boxing gloves fighting the devil in the squared 
ring'. 92 'The Chrysanthemums' is the first in a collection of stories which explore 
the dark enclosure of the town and its valley. The first sentence announces entrap- 
ment - 'The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the 
sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the moun- 
tains and made of the valley a closed pot' - and the story proceeds, in good nat- 
uralist fashion, to explore the forces contained within that closed pot. Most 
tightly constrained is Elisa Allen, the wife of a rancher, who tends her chrysan- 
themums, although their stems 'seemed too small and easy for her energy'. A 
chicken-wire fence divides her flower garden from the rest of the farm, and her 
conversations with her husband tend to take place with this fence between them. 
Critics have tended to read Elisa's flower garden as a symbol of repressed sexu- 
ality. Some argue that her husband is keeping her fenced in; more convincingly, 
Stanley Renner suggests that she represses her own physicality: she will not even 
garden without gloves. 93 The story then introduces a tinker, a 'big' man with 'cal- 
loused hands', whom she invites into the garden and to whom she gives a 
chrysanthemum in a different kind of pot ('the gloves were forgotten now'). 
When her husband comes home, he tells her that she looks 'different', 'strong 
and happy'. They decide to go to town for dinner; on the way, she sees the plant 
abandoned on the road - despite his talk, the travelling man was only interested 
in the pot. The story is rather insistent on the sexual meaning of gardens and 


flower pots. More relevant here is the way that Steinbeck links these to boxing. 
('Sex is a kind of war', he later claimed. 94 ) At the start of the story, Elisa's hus- 
band had joked about going to the fights. 'Oh no', she said breathlessly. 'No, I 
wouldn't like fights.' Later, after seeing the tinker's cart and her rejected flower, 
she asks her husband, 'Henry, at those prize fights, do the men hurt each other 
very much? ... I've read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. 
I've read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.' Several words 
used here link back to moments earlier in the story - the reference to 'gloves' re- 
calls Elisa's own pair, and 'heavy' resonates with Henry's comment, just a few 
lines earlier, that 'we get so heavy out on the ranch'. The prize-fights, of course, 
take place in a fenced-off square that echoes Elisa's garden, the flower beds within 
it and the Salinas Valley itself. So what is Steinbeck suggesting? Elisa, it seems, has 
the sexual energy and potential violence of a boxer, but, until that day, she has not 
allowed a real opponent into the ring with her. Having finally done so, and hav- 
ing even gone bareknuckled, she herself has now been badly bloodied. Bemused, 
Henry offers to take his wife to watch the fights, but all her own fight has gone. 
'She relaxed limply in the seat . . . She turned up her coat collar so he could not 
see that she was crying weakly - like an old woman.' 95 


Chapter Two of The Autobiography of Malcolm X begins with 'the greatest cele- 
bration of race pride our generation had ever known': 'On June twenty-seventh 
of that year, nineteen thirty-seven, Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock to 
become the heavyweight champion of the world.' More than two decades had 
passed since a black American had held the title. 

In the wake of this victory the thirteen-year-old Malcolm Little followed his 
brother to the gym. But while Philbert was 'a natural boxer', Malcolm was not. 
Pretending he was older he signed up for a bout with another novice, a white boy 
called Bill Peterson; 'I'll never forget him.' 

I knew I was scared, but I didn't know, as Bill Peterson told me later 
on, that he was scared of me, too. He was so scared I was going to hurt 
him that he knocked me down fifty times if he did once. 

He did such a job on my reputation in the Negro neighbourhood 
that I practically went into hiding. A Negro can't just be whipped by 
somebody white and return with his head up to the neighbourhood, 
especially in those days . . . When I did show my face again, the Ne- 
groes I knew rode me so badly I knew I had to do something. 

... So I went back to the gym, and I trained - hard. I beat bags and 
skipped rope and grunted and sweated all over the place. And finally I 
signed up to fight Bill Peterson again. 

The rematch was no better: 

The moment the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and 
ten seconds later the referee was saying 'Ten!' over me. It was probably 
the shortest 'fight' in history . . . That white boy was the beginning and 
the end of my fight career. 96 

It is interesting to consider why Malcolm X included this story in his Autobiog- 
raphy. Most straightforwardly, it seems that he was illustrating the impact of 
Louis in the late thirties - 'Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the 
next Brown Bomber' - and demonstrating his own tenacity. More importantly, 
however, the story allows him to compare the roles of black men, and black 
leaders, in the 1960s and in the 1930s, where 'sports and, to a lesser extent, show 
business, were the only fields open to Negroes, and when the ring was the only 
place a Negro could whip a white man and not be lynched.' Malcolm X's auto- 
biography is all about the unexpected places in which he has been able to 'whip 
a white man', and the suggestion is that if he had been good at boxing he would 
not have become an exceptional leader. 'A lot of times in these later years since 
I became a Muslim, I've thought back to that fight and reflected that it was 
Allah's work to stop me: I might have wound up punchy.' 97 Nevertheless, the 
qualities that made him train 'hard' and go back for a second shot at Peterson 
are also, it is suggested, the qualities which made him the man he became. 98 

Born in 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama, Joe Louis Barrow moved with his fam- 
ily to Detroit's Black Bottom when he was twelve. 99 According to legend, his 
first boxing lessons were paid for with money his mother had given him for 
violin classes, and, when he began to fight, he dropped his surname to deceive 
her. 100 Louis trained at the Brewster gym, where he met local businessmen John 
Roxborough and Julian Black (both men dealt in real estate and Roxborough 
also ran Detroit's numbers racket, while Black ran a casino). While keen to man- 
age Louis, neither man had any experience in boxing, so they enlisted the help 
of veteran trainer Jack Blackburn. 

After winning the light heavyweight championship at the (unsegregated) 
Detroit Golden Gloves competition in 1933 and 1934, Louis turned professional. 
By the time he was twenty he had a record of twelve wins and no losses, and 
was starting to get noticed. Eventually Roxborough, Black and Blackburn de- 
cided that he would have a better chance at securing high-profile fights with 
white fighters if he also had a white manager, and in particular, one with the 
right connections. Mike Jacobs was employed by the Hearst organization and 
was therefore the most powerful promoter in the States; the 'pugilist-infested 
stretch' of 49th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue was dubbed 'Jacobs' 
Beach'. 101 Jacobs joined the three-man management team in 1935, and subse- 
quently had a major influence on the direction of Louis's career. Jacobs collected 
half the profits from Louis's fights and reduced Roxborough and Black to figure- 
heads. 102 Because of this, Jacobs has been demonized. Louis's biographer, Chris 
Mead, for example, described Louis as 'getting into bed with a rattlesnake', while 
Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 painting St Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes depicts 


the boxer in the pose of the Renaissance sacra conversazione, with Blackburn on 
his right, laying a supportive arm on his leg, and a hooked-nosed Jacobs, as a 
money-grubbing Judas on the left. 103 Louis recalled Jacobs more generously: 

If it wasn't for Mike Jacobs I would never have got to be champion. He 
fixed it for me to get a crack at the title, and he never once asked me to 
do anything wrong or phony in the ring ... He made a lot of money 
through me, but he figured to lose, too. 104 

The key to success in 1930s America, Roxburgh and Jacobs realized, was for 
their fighter to behave in a manner as unlike Jack Johnson as possible. Roxbor- 
ough laid down seven rules for Louis to follow. White America had been offended 
by Johnson's marriages to white women, so Louis agreed only to be photographed 
with black women. White America had been offended by Johnson's flamboyance, 
so Louis was to appear low key and unexpressive. He was never to gloat over a 
fallen opponent. He was never to get a speeding ticket. In short, he was to be, at 
all times, 'a credit to his race', blameless and bland. 105 As Langston Hughes put it, 

'They say' . . . 'They say' . . . 'They say' . . . 
But the gossips had no 
'They say' 
to latch onto 
for Joe. 106 

Years later Louis admitted, 'I was just as vain as Muhammad Ali; I just had to be 
more discreet about it.' 107 

Louis's professional career was notable not simply for its brilliance - he re- 
tained his title for nearly twelve years - but because of what else was going on 
during those particular twelve years, 1937-49. Louis fought a lot of white men 
during that time, and each fight represented something slightly different. For 
Richard Bak, he is 'unquestionably the greatest metaphor the American prize 
ring has ever produced'. 108 

Louis's first metaphorical contest took place at Madison Square Garden in 
1935, just a few months after the Harlem riots. His opponent was Primo Cam- 
era, the Italian former heavyweight champion who had famously been pho- 
tographed by Edward Steichen giving the Fascist salute. Camera was a huge 
man and the press portrayed him as symbolic of the quarter of a million Italian 
troops poised to invade Ethiopia. The Washington Post printed a cartoon of the 
fighters with enormous shadows (representing Haile Selassie and Mussolini) 
behind them, and the New York Sun featured Louis kicking a boot called Cam- 
era, while a similarly small figure named Ethiopia stood next to a giant map of 
Italy. The Sun's caption asked, 'can the king of Abyssinia, descendant of King 
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, do on a big scale in Africa what Joe Louis did 
on a small scale in Yankee Stadium?' 109 


Louis was not well known before the fight, but overnight he became 
famous. While Jack Johnson's celebrity was tied up with the development of 
film, and Muhammad Ali would later been seen as the saviour of television 
boxing, Louis's status as a national hero was associated with the spread of radio 
during the thirties. 110 Autobiographies of the period (by blacks and whites) 
almost invariably contain an account of listening to one of his fights. 'We'd be 
all crowded around the radio waiting to hear the announcer describe Joe knock- 
ing some motherfucker out,' recalled Miles Davis. 'And when he did, the whole 
goddamn black community of East St Louis would go crazy'. 111 Maya Angelou 
describes a crowd gathering in an Arkansas store to listen to radio coverage of 
the Louis-Carnera contest. Every piece of commentary brings forth a reaction 
from the listeners, as they imagine what is happening in the ring. When it seems 
Louis might be going down, Angelou reports: 

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet 
another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed 
and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed . . . This might be the 
end of the world. 


Louis on the cover 

of The Crisis, June 


The wider meanings of the fight are clear to everyone there. When the commen- 
tator reports, 'They're in a clench, Louis is trying to fight his way out', Angelou 
notes, 'some bitter comedian on the porch said, "That white man don't mind 
hugging that niggah now, I betcha."' And she herself 'wondered if the announcer 
gave any thought to the fact that he was addressing as "ladies and gentlemen" 

all the Negroes around the world who sat sweat- 




9y Frank R, Cr9li.w«lttt 

By J^lin Mr Ce«M< 

By W*rH H, Kodctrt 

ing and praying, glued to their "master's voice". 
Louis's eventual victory proved glorious: 'peo- 
ple drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate 
candy bars like Christmas'. But Angelou, writ- 
ing in 1969, was also conscious of the limita- 
tions of this moment. As the crowd dispersed, 
she notes that 'those who lived too far had made 
arrangements to stay in town'. 'It wouldn't do 
for a Black man and his family to be caught on 
a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis 
had proved that we were the strongest people 
in the world.' 112 

In the months that followed his defeat of 
Camera, Louis-mania flourished in diverse 
quarters. In June, the journal of the respect- 
able naacp, The Crisis, gave its seal of approval 
by putting him on the cover (illus. 105). 113 In 
September, Richard Wright (who had listened 
to Louis's defeat of Baer on the radio in a 


South Side tavern) wrote in the communist New Masses of Chicago's black 
population filling the streets as 'a fluid mass of joy': 

Four centuries of oppression, of frustrated hopes, of black bitterness, felt 
even in the bones of the bewildered young rose to the surface. Yes uncon- 
sciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked 
dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized images of retaliation and he 
had won! . . . From the symbol of Joe's strength they took strength. 114 

Although he came from Detroit, Harlemites quickly claimed Louis as one of 
their own. Badly hit by the Depression, Harlem was still the symbolic centre of 
black American life, and as Ralph Ellison later recalled, 'a place of glamour'. 

Those were the days of the swinging big bands, days when the streets 
of Harlem were filled with celebration every time Joe Louis knocked 
somebody out in the ring, days when we danced the Lindy at the Savoy 
Ballroom, and nights when new stars were initiated on the stage of the 
Apollo Theater. 115 

When Louis beat Max Baer, the Sao Tomense poet Francisco Jose Tenreiro wrote 
that 'Harlem opened up in a wide smile', while little girls skipped and sang of 
Louis's 'socking' and Baer's 'rocking' as the 'dream of a viper'. 116 

While waiting for his title chance against Jim Braddock, Louis took on a 
number of ex-world champions, the most prominent of whom was Max Schmel- 
ing. Schmeling had come touted by Goebbels and Hitler as an exemplar of 
Aryan racial superiority (although Hitler was supposedly pleased to point out 
that Schmeling's manager, Joe Jacobs, was an American Jew, and hence 'Ger- 
many is not anti-Jewish' 117 ). Boxing was important to Hitler, and in Mein Kampf, 
he had emphasized its role in training the youth of Germany: 

It is regarded as natural and honourable that a young man should learn 
to fence and proceed to fight duels right and left, but if he boxes, it is 
supposed to be vulgar! Why? There is no sport that so much as this one 
promotes the spirit of attack, demands lightning decisions, and trains 
the body in steel dexterity . . . If our entire intellectual upper crust had 
not been brought up so exclusively on upper-crust etiquette; if instead 
they had learned boxing thoroughly, a German revolution of pimps, 
deserters, and such-like rabble would never have been possible. 118 

In the years leading up to the war, Max Schmeling's every fight became a test 
case not only for Hitler's racial theories (German Jews had not been allowed to 
box professionally for some time) but also for the potential might of the German 
army. 119 In 1933 Schmeling had been defeated by Max Baer (whose Jewishness 
was questionable, but who often fought with a Star of David on his shorts), and 


iheAmerican Hebrew described the defeat as 'a huge joke at the expense of "Herr 
Hitler"' whose 'Nazi theory of Nordic superiority' had been made 'ridiculous'. 120 
On 19 June 1936, however, Schmeling fought and beat Louis in twelve rounds. 
He had picked up Louis's only weakness as a fighter - a tendency to hold his left 
hand too low. Any fighter who circled to his left could defeat him, a jealous Jack 
Johnson had predicted, and he proved right. The American had been the 10-1 
favourite. Johnson, however, had bet heavily on Schmeling and, after the con- 
test, walked down 125th Street, waving his wad around. 121 (Johnson was also 
involved in the search for a white hope to defeat Louis: 'it's a commercial affair 
with me', he explained. 122 ) 

The Nazi journal Das Schwarze Korps declared that 'Schmeling's victory was 
not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race', and Goebbels used 
the fight footage in one of his most successful propaganda films, Max Schmel- 
ings Sieg-Ein Deutscher ('Schmeling's Victory, A Germany victory'). More than 
three million Germans saw the film in its first month. 123 (The Berlin Olympics 
began just six weeks later.) Meanwhile, Der Weltkampf wrote that France, Eng- 
land and 'white North America' should also celebrate the victory which had 
'checked the arrogance of the Negroes and clearly demonstrated to them the 
superiority of white intelligence'. 124 At least one American paper, the New 
Orleans Picayune, agreed. A columnist cheerfully wrote of Louis's defeat, 'I guess 
this proves who really is the master race.' 125 

For blacks, Louis's defeat was made worse by the fact that it had taken place 
on Juneteenth, Emancipation Day. 126 Hundreds wept in the streets of Harlem, 
and Francisco Jose Tenreiro declared that 'The gong of the bell / Hangs in the 
air, screaming / The negro's defeat.' 127 Marcus Garvey, meanwhile, blamed 
Louis, accusing him of laziness, selfishness, and lack of racial pride. 'Schmeling 
knew that he had the responsibility of satisfying a watching and waiting Ger- 
manic world', but Louis, 'as is customary to us', 'thought only of himself ': 'We 
hope Mrs Louis will not think hard of us, but we think Joe got married too early 
before securing his world championship.' 128 'Don't be a Joe Louis' was a popu- 
lar expression that summer and John Dos Passos wrote to his friend Ernest Hem- 
ingway, asking him what had happened to his 'little chocolate friend Joey Louis? 
Matrimony? Dope? Disease? Or is Hitler right?' 129 

On 22 June 1937 Louis's redemption began. Twenty-two years after Jess 
Willard had defeated Jack Johnson, Joe Louis broke the colour line in the heavy- 
weight championship for good by defeating Jim Braddock, the 'Cinderella 
Man'. 13 " The fight had been difficult to secure and Louis's manager, Mike 
Jacobs, finally agreed to pay Braddock, and his manager Joe Gould, 10 per cent 
of Louis's earnings for a decade. The Baltimore celebration was witnessed by 
British journalist Alistair Cooke. Cooke and a friend were attending a Fats 
Waller show in 'darktown', when 'far off from somewhere came a high roar like 
a tidal wave'. 'It was like Christmas Eve in darkest Africa ... for one night, in all 
the lurid darktowns of America, the black man was king. The memory of that 
night has terrified and exhilarated me ever since.' 131 The Daily Worker was less 


Conradian: 'The Negro people,' it declared, 'are going to smack Jim Crow right 
on the button like Louis hit Braddock.' 132 

But the real championship fight, and the fight that turned Louis into a 
potent symbol for white as well as black America, was the 1938 S chmeling rematch 
(illus. 110). 133 In the lead up to the contest, Franklin D. Roosevelt reputedly 
invited the boxer to the White House, felt his muscles, and said, 'Joe, we're de- 
pending on those muscles for America.' 134 Louis did not disappoint. After only 
124 seconds he knocked out the 'sagging Teuton', the 'Nazi Nailer'; 'people who 
had paid as much as $100 for their chairs didn't use them' and many radio 
listeners who had not quite settled down for the fight said they missed it 
altogether. 135 'It was a shocking thing, that knockout,' reported Bob Considine, 
'short, sharp, merciless, complete'. 136 'Hitler's pet,' wrote Richard Wright, 
looked like a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun.' 137 Nevertheless, 
Louis and Schmeling embraced. 'They both smiled,' noted Considine, 'and could 
afford to - for Louis had made around $200,000 a minute and Schmeling 
$100,000.' (Later, to salve opinion back in Germany, Schmeling claimed he 
had been fouled.) 

In Harlem, 500,000 blacks took to the streets, saluting each other with Nazi 
salutes and shouting 'Heil Louis!' 'One joyous Negro passed it on to another 
and finally Seventh Avenue looked like a weird burlesque of Wilhelmstrasse 
in Berlin - staggering, yelling, singing, jumping, dancing, hugging, men and 
women jutting out their hands to one another in mock Nazi salute.' 138 In 
Georgia, things were slightly different. Jimmy Carter recalled hearing the fight 
on the family radio which had been propped up on the window sill so that their 
black neighbours could listen to it without entering the house. At the end of the 
fight, 'there was no sound from anyone in the yard, except a polite "Thank you, 
Mister Earl"', offered to Carter's 'deeply disappointed' father. 

Then, our several dozen visitors filed across the dirt road, across the 
railroad track, and quietly entered a house about a hundred yards away 
out in the field. At that point, pandemonium broke loose inside that 
house, as our black neighbours shouted and yelled in celebration of 
the Louis victory. But all the curious, accepted proprieties of a racially- 
segregated society had been carefully observed. 139 

Like the victory of the black American runner Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin 
Olympics, Louis's triumph had a powerful political impact. 140 For whites, Amer- 
ican democracy had straightforwardly defeated German fascism. For blacks, 
however, Louis was primarily a 'race hero', fighting in (as well as for) Jim Crow 
America. Marcus Garvey now argued that Louis's punches were 'typical of our 
race in true action': Joe had 'had time for reflection and for the appreciation of 
the responsibility our race has placed on his shoulders'. 141 Richard Wright noted 
the political potential of the 'High Tide in Harlem' that Louis's victory inspired 
and tried to balance the claims of democracy vs. fascism with those of black 


American racial justice. 

Carry the dream on for yourself; lift it out of the trifling guise of a 
prizefight celebration and supply the social and economic details and 
you have the secret dynamics of proletarian aspiration. The eyes of 
these people were bold that night. Their fear of property, of the armed 
police fell away. There was in their chant a hunger deeper than that for 
bread as they marched along. 

For the communist Wright, this was a moment of potentially revolutionary 
significance. With Louis as a rallying point, the black proletariat might break 
out of the confines of their own square circle and recognize 'that the earth was 
theirs . . . that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it'. 142 

When Jack Johnson entered the ring in Reno in 1910 the band played 'All 
Coons Look Alike to Me'; in 1938, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' introduced Louis. 
After 1938, white newspaper cartoonists finally abandoned Sambo stereotypes 
to portray Louis in a flattering light. 143 Louis's nicknames proliferated as fast as 
his product endorsements. As Eugene McCartney noted in a 1938 scholarly 
article, Alliteration on the Sports Page': 

Brown Bomber has finally emerged as his most popular name, but only after 
knocking out a score of others: Alabam Assassin, Black Beauty, Brown Be- 
hemoth, Brown Bludgeon, Brown Embalmer, Dark Destroyer, Dark Dyna- 
miter, Detroit Demon, Detroit Devastator, Detroit's Dun Demon, Jarring 
Joejoltingjoe, Licorice Lasher, Michigan Mauler, Ring Robot, Sable Sphinx, 
Sepia Slasher, Sepia Sniper, Tan Thunderbolt, Tan Thunderer, Tan Tornado, 
Wildcat Warrior. 144 

Louis's reputation as an ail-American hero was consolidated in 1942 when 
he risked his title against Max Baer and donated his winnings (approximately 
$70,000) to the Naval Relief Fund to help the families of those who had died at 
Pearl Harbor. 145 Paul Gallico declared that Louis ('Citizen Barrow') represented 
nothing less than 'simple good American integrity', perhaps forgetting that in 
1935 he had dubbed him a 'calmly savage Ethiopian.' Many blacks were less 
happy about Louis's support of the discriminatory and oppressive Navy policies. 
After Walter White, Secretary of the naacp, expressed the hope that Louis's 
patriotic actions would stir the American Navy toward desegregation, the Office 
of War Information and the War Department made statements insisting that it 
was necessary to the war effort to 'de-emphasize our many long standing inter- 
nal dissensions'. 146 But the war simply highlighted those dissensions. In the 
May 1941 issue of The Crisis, labour leader A. Philip Randolph had called for a 
mass march on Washington to protest against employment inequalities in the 
National Defense industries, arguing that the present situation was 'a blow 
below the belt'. Six days before the scheduled march, Roosevelt issued an order 


barring racial discrimination in the defense industries, and Randolph cancelled 
the march. The effectiveness of the threat of nonviolent direct action had been 
demonstrated. 147 

After the fight, Louis enlisted and became a spokesman and recruiting agent 
for the army. In May 1942, he made a speech saying, 'We gon do our part, and we 
will win, because we're on God's side.' This immediately became a popular prop- 
aganda slogan, featuring on a recruitment poster with Louis and his gun. 148 Clau- 
dia Jones of the Young Communist League used the same image for the cover of 
a 1942 pamphlet, Lift Every Voice for Victory! (illus. 133). 'All victories won on the 
"home front" against discrimination today,' she argued, 'are inseparable from 
the struggle to defeat Hitler.' 149 Louis also appeared in a couple of propaganda 
films, including This is The Army (1943) - featuring an Irving Berlin song that 
urged the fashionable to 'take a look at Brown Bomber Joe' to find out what 'the 
well-dressed man in Harlem will wear' - and the groundbreaking The Negro Sol- 
dier (1944). 15 ° The film begins in a church where the black congregation listens 
to a young preacher, who departs from his prepared text to consider the contri- 
bution of blacks in the military. The preacher (played by Carlton Moss, who also 
wrote the script) begins by evoking Joe Louis's 1938 defeat of Schmeling. A news- 
reel clip of the fight is then shown with the preacher's words as a voiceover: 

In one minute and 49 seconds an American fist won a victory. But it 
wasn't a final victory. No, that victory's going to take a little longer and 
a whole lot more American fists. Now those two men that were 
matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far 
greater arena and for much greater stakes. 

The scene then shifts to Louis and Schmeling in training - Louis in uniform 
running through the countryside with his comrades, and Schmeling jumping 
out of a plane, learning to be a parachutist. In Germany, men are 'turned into 
machines', the preacher says; in America, he implies, even black men are at one 
with nature. The sermon continues: 

This time it's a fight not between man and man but between nation 
and nation, a fight for the real championship of the world, to deter- 
mine which way of life shall survive - their way or our way. And this 
time we must see to it that there is no return engagement for the stakes 
this time are the greatest men have ever fought for. 151 

The film goes on to tell the story of black involvement in the American army 
since the Revolution. Although the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln are briefly 
mentioned, slavery is not. 152 In 1945, Louis was awarded a medal by the Legion 
of Merit. 'White America found it easier to give Joe Louis a medal than to inte- 
grate the army,' notes Chris Mead, 'easier to write an editorial praising Joe Louis 
than to hire a black reporter.' 153 Louis was not unaware of the political 


hypocrisies at play. Of his fights with Schmeling, he said, 'White Americans - 
even while some of them still were lynching black people in the South - were 
depending on me to k.o. Germany.' 154 

In 1946, Louis returned to boxing but he was not as strong or as fast as he 
had been. He knocked out Billy Conn again - coining the slogan, 'He can run, 
but he can't hide' - and won three other fights, including two with Jersey Joe 
Walcott, before abdicating his title in 1949. However, because he needed money 
to pay taxes - the irs demanded a reported $1.2 million in back taxes, interest 
and penalties - he returned to the ring. In 1950 he lost a one-sided decision to 
Ezzard Charles and retired for good the following year when Rocky Marciano 
knocked him out in front of a national television audience. Broke, Louis turned 
to wrestling and refereeing and, following several stays in hospitals for cocaine 
addiction and paranoia, he became an 'official greeter' at Caesars Palace in Las 
Vegas. He died in 1981 at the age of 66 and was buried in Arlington National 
Cemetery; Max Schmeling, who had become a good friend, was one of the pall- 
bearers. Between 1937 and 1949 Louis defended his title 25 times, setting records 
for any division in the number of defences and longevity as a continuous world 
champion. Both records still stand. 

For all that white America eventually embraced him, it was as a 'race hero' 
that Louis flourished. 155 For some, he was simply the best-known black man in 
America. In November 1938 Frank Byrd described trying to write an article on 
a Harlem prostitute called Big Bess for the Amsterdam News, but being told by 
the night deskman that his job was simply 'to tell me when Joe Louis gets some, 
and if the Brown Bomber likes it . . . Sidney said an Amsterdam reader could not 
care less whether Lenox Avenue Bess really had a heart; they'd read about her 
if Joe Louis said so'. 156 For others, the Louis phenomenon merited proper aca- 
demic analysis. In their seminal sociological study Black Metropolis (1945), Clair 
Drake and Horace R. Cayton noted that from 1933 to 1938 Louis had more front- 
page mentions (80) in the Chicago Defender than anyone else; Haile Selassie 
came a poor second with 24 mentions. 157 In Negro Youth at the Crossways (1940), 
E. Franklin Frazier reported Louis's popularity with high school students: 'Joe 
Louis', Frazier wrote, 'enables . . . many Negro youths and adults in all classes 
to inflict vicariously the aggressions which they would like to carry out against 
whites for the discriminations and insults which they have suffered.' 158 

Louis soon became a quasi-religious figure, and in 1941 even Time maga- 
zine dubbed him 'a black Moses, leading the children of Ham out of bondage'. 159 
There are many examples of Louis being evoked in these terms, but none more 
poignant than a story told by Martin Luther King in Why We Can't Wait: 

More than 25 years ago, on one of the southern states adopted a new 
method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In 
its earliest stages a microphone was placed inside the sealed death 
chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying 
prisoner to judge how the victim reacted in this novel situation. The 




Cover of Lift Every 
Voice for Victory! 
by Claudia Jones 



Two Champions. 
Postcard based on 
a photograph of 
Joe Louis and 
Martin Luther King 
taken at a benefit 
for the March on 
Washington, 1963. 

first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, 
and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words. 
'Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis'. 160 

Writing in 1963, King described this cry as 'bizarre and naive', and claimed that 
it had now been replaced by 'a mighty shout of challenge': the loneliness and 
profound despair of Negroes in that period', a despair manifest in the belief 
that 'not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro 
who was the world's most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope' 
had finally been 'replaced by confidence' in the possibility of real political 
change (illus. 134). l61 During the sixties, another 'expert boxer' would come to 
represent political change, but at the height of the Depression, the dying pris- 
oner was not the only American to believe that Louis was a Christ-like figure, the 
'New Black Hope', the 'one Negro white men respect'. 162 After Louis beat Baer 
(in the first million-dollar gate since Dempsey), Richard Wright wrote that the 
feeling on the streets of Chicago 'was like a revival': After one fight really, there 
was a religious feeling in the air. Well, it wasn't exactly a religious feeling, but it 
was something, and you could feel it. It was a feeling of unity, of oneness.' 163 

The religious aura surrounding Louis meant that he was highly flexible as 
a political symbol. 164 Ironically, Louis's success in a sport that epitomized per- 
sonal struggle and achievement was often used to harness support for political 
struggles that rejected individualist aspiration in favour of collective action. In 
1942, Louis appeared in propaganda for the us Army; in 1946 he agreed to act 
as the honorary national chairman of the communist-linked United Negro Vet- 
erans of America, and was honoured (along with Duke Ellington and Frank 
Sinatra) by New Masses, the journal in which Richard Wright had dubbed him 
political 'dynamite'. 165 Along with movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and 
Rita Hayworth, and performers such as Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman, 
Louis could be found 'supporting Spanish Loyalists, raising money for anti-fas- 
cist refugees, playing benefits for Popular Front politicians, and promoting 
themselves in the Daily Worker'. 166 In July 1947 The Worker reported the pres- 
ence of Louis and Sinatra, along with Edward G. Robinson and Harpo Marx, at 
a benefit for an inter-racial hospital. 167 

Novels of, and about, the 1930s and '40s abound with references to Louis 
and his capacity for political inspiration. V. S.Naipaul's The Mimic Men (1967) 
is set partly on the British-governed Caribbean island of Isabella. Ralph Singh, 
writing his memoirs in London, recalls a visit to the home of a black school- 
friend, Bertie Browne, in the early forties. 'On one wall, ochre-colored with white 
facings, there were framed pictures of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Haile Selassie, 
and Jesus.' Only a few years later, Browne becomes a 'black folk-leader', active 
in the island's struggle for independence. 168 A radio broadcast of Louis's 1941 
fight against 'new White Hope', Billy Conn, is the stimulus for a prison rebellion 
in Lloyd L. Brown's 1951 novel, Iron City. For protagonist, Lonnie James, whose 
initials reverse those of the champion, each of Louis's victories has been 'a good 


sign'. On the night of the Conn fight, however, Louis seems to be struggling and 
the prison resounds with the sound of 'kill that nigger! ' The guards turn the 
radio off, but the prisoners protest: 

turn on the radio! turn on the radio! It was savage now, not plead- 
ing, and it seemed as though the granite walls would shatter from the 
pounding beat of the chant . . . Everything was in that outcry - the beat- 
ings, the Hole, the graft, the senseless rules, crooked cops, crooked 
judges - everything. 

The guards give in and switch the radio back on. The fight is over, 'but the inmates 
would still hear the solemn announcement, the winnah and still heavyweight 
champion of the world - jo-o-oe louis] The prisoners fight back against the 
guards, just as Louis had fought against Conn, but there is an important difference 
in the two battles. Louis's victory had been an individual achievement, but that of 
the prisoners was a collective act. In the following chapter those same prisoners 
gather together to support Lonnie James's appeal against the death penalty. Louis's 
individual victory sparks collective action, and Brown links the fight to the Ger- 
man invasion of the Soviet Union (which took place just a few days later). 9 

But not everyone agreed that race heroes such as Louis could be effective as 
political models. Langston Hughes's poem 'To be Somebody' (1950) describes 
a little boy 'dreaming of the boxing gloves /Joe Louis wore' but for him there is 
no 'knockout' merely 'Bam! Bop! Mop!' 'There's always room,' the poem con- 
cludes, 'They say, / At the top.' 17 ° A similar irony informs Chester Himes's first 
novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), written 
in the wake of Louis's support of the segre- 
gated American Navy. Robert Jones, who 
works in a California shipyard, has been 
raised up - 'We made you a leader of your 
people, such as Joe Louis, the prize fighter, 
Marian Anderson, the singer, and others. 
We had confidence in you.' - only to be 
brought down, by a false accusation of rape. 
Jones says he doesn't want to fight, but he 
dreams constantly of killing. The novel ends 
when he joins the army. 171 

While Joe Louis, or his reputation, crop 
up in a wide variety of novels, the form of ex- 
pression most often associated with him was 
undoubtedly the blues (illus. 135). 172 Within 
weeks of his 1935 defeat of Camera, songs 
about the fighter were being released all over 
the country. The first was Texan Joe Pullum's 
'Joe Louis is the Man', which praised him 


'Joe Louis is 
the Man': Advert- 
isement for Decca 
records, 1935. 

H(r» *n f*ur (ft*! wepdi tittflttVtd Eft J*i Umli, (f.r f u»n 
l+inbfr, lUN «ur fcrt fir Ihi Ehimpl*niMp. fit iur« u fl*i thju 

Cfi7i — -0* Lou!* 1 i The Man nil J Putin' (II u« — Vqc* 
Wf I PUno Ace. J« Fullum . 5fc 

I 1*1 Vtwil-GuJt. A** r Cwl MarUn . , ifc 

T11C — Jp* Louli Chint and Baby O j Mini — Vac. Qrrfr, 
I I lif ac«, Geori* D*w*y Wuhbgtan S*c 

Qftjlft — 1« Lfliin Stfutt In J H*'» [n Tti* Ring Doing 
M^TlV Tfc* S*m, Old fhlni— V«*l with Onh, Atr. 
Suuf by M*mphJi iiiaait , ... ^ i*c 


less as a fighter than as a devoted son, while nine days later Memphis Minnie 
McCoy recorded the 'Joe Louis Strut' and 'He's In the Ring (Doin' the Same Old 
Thing)', a wonderful evocation of Joe's promise amid Depression hardship. 

I wouldn't even pay my house rent 

I wouldn't buy me nothing to eat 

Joe Louis said 'Come take a chance with me 

I'll bet I put you on your feet.' 

Soon every victory was being celebrated, and even Louis's 1936 defeat by 
Schmeling was debated, most notably in a calypso by The Lion and Atilla: 'I 
wouldn't say it was dope or conspiracy, / but the whole thing look extremely 
funny to me.' 173 By the end of the thirties Louis was established as the greatest 
blues hero since John Henry, and literary figures such as Langston Hughes and 
Richard Wright joined in. In 1940 the naacp Hollywood Theatre Alliance Negro 
Revue included a skit about Louis, which had as its climax Hughes's song 'Amer- 
ica's Young Black Joe', a parody of Stephen Foster's 'Old Black Joe' (1861). Old 
Black Joe was a slave dreaming of leaving the cotton fields for heaven: 

I'm coming, I'm coming 
For my head is bending low 
I hear their gentle voices calling 
Old Black Joe. 

Young Black Joe is also 'comin', 

But my head ain't bending low! 

I'm walking proud! I'm speaking loud! 

I'm America's Young Black Joe! 174 

In 1941 Richard Wright's attempt, 'King Joe' (with music by Count Basie), was 
recorded by Basie's Orchestra, with Paul Robeson 'singing the blues for the first 
time in his life' (Jimmy Rushing stood by his side to beat time). 175 'Wonder what 
Joe Louis thinks when he's fighting a white man,' Wright asked, 'Bet he thinks 
what I'm thinking, cause he wears a deadpan.' 176 


Joe Louis's enormous popularity did not mean that Jack Johnson was entirely 
forgotten. 177 If white fight fans liked to compare Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey, 
blacks pitted Louis against Johnson. The comparative experience of the two 
black heavyweight champions was also evoked as a barometer of the changing 
position of black Americans more generally. Richard Wright's first novel, Lawd 
Today, presents a Joycean day in the life of a Chicago South Side post office 


worker called Jake Jackson. 178 The day is 12 February 1937, Abraham Lincoln's 
birthday, and the novel draws parallels between the Civil War, boxing, and Jack- 
son's daily struggles. At one point, Jake overhears part of a radio broadcast: 'In 
the latter part of 1862 Meade and Lee sparred and feinted cautiously for an open- 
ing to deal a telling blow.' It is also some months before Louis won the title, but 
the men at the post office think Louis will never be allowed to become cham- 
pion. 179 After discussing Louis's 1936 defeat by Schmeling, they reminisce about 
Johnson's acts of defiance and the riots that took place in the wake of his victory 
over Jeffries. The Civil War is not over; the battling continues. Wright's choice 
of name for his protagonist seems deliberately ironic. Jackson is no hero, but a 
gullible and pathetic drunk whose only blows are directed at his wife. The novel 
ends with a knockout of sorts: she smashes a glass over his head and he falls 
into a drunken sleep. 

A comparative reading of the careers of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis is also 
important to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). The novel enacts a debate be- 
tween the two great black heavyweight champions of the first half of the twen- 
tieth century, and considers each in turn as a model for the black writer in 
America. Ralph Ellison was born in the year before Johnson lost his title, in 1914, 
the same year as Joe Louis Barrow. If by the 1940s the colour line in heavyweight 
boxing had gone for good, it remained firm in what might be called heavyweight 
writing. When, in 1963, Ellison wanted to complain that Irving Howe's essay, 
'Black Boys and Native Sons', was a 'Northern white liberal version of the white 
Southern myth of absolute separation of the races', he did so in the language of 
the boxing commentator: '[Howe] implies that Negroes can only aspire to contest 
other Negroes (this at a time when Baldwin has been taking on just about every- 
one, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and the United States Attorney General!), 
and must wait for the appearance of a Black Hope before they have the courage 
to move.' 180 Ellison repeatedly rejected the idea of a black-only tradition, assert- 
ing strongly the influence of writers such as Eliot, Joyce, Hemingway and Twain 
upon his work. 'While one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives,' he 
maintained, 'one can as an artist, choose one's "ancestors".' Richard Wright 
was, in this sense, a 'relative'; Hemingway an 'ancestor'. 181 This is an interesting 
and much-discussed distinction, but within both words, 'relative' and 'ances- 
tor', I would suggest, another nestles - 'opponent'. Ellison goes even further in 
his determination to throw off the influence of Wright, when he maintains in the 
same essay: 'I did not need Wright to tell me how to be a Negro or to be angry 
or to express anger -Joe Louis was doing that very well.' 182 

Ellison's metaphor of the writer as fighter recalls his 'ancestor'/ opponent 
Hemingway's famous 1949 letter to Charles Scribner in which he claimed to be 'a 
man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world'. 183 As Heming- 
way took on all-comers, living or dead, Ellison wanted to be seen as taking on all- 
comers, black or white. Ellison wanted to be considered 'a real contender' and 
part of that involved demonstrating the ambition necessary to be thought so. But 
while Hemingway's only ambition was 'to be champion of the world', Ellison 


extends the fighterly metaphor, and makes it more precise and, in a way, more 
problematic. Wright may have given him faith 'in his ability to compete', but Joe 
Louis had taught him how 'to be a Negro ... to be angry ... to express anger'. 184 

Invisible Man is a book full of 'bouts with circumstance', in and out of the 
boxing ring, bouts which are repeatedly presented as commentaries on ques- 
tions of verbal expression and communication. 185 How much is writing, or 
boxing, Ellison asks, about 'expressing anger' or indeed any other form of self- 
expression or self-assertion? How much are both simply about performing? The 
best-known fight in the novel comes in its opening chapter, in the battle royal 
scene, which was first published as a short story. 186 The battle royal (which only 
featured blacks) was a popular form of boxing event in the early twentieth- 
century south, and was often the opening event on a boxing card. Most often, bat- 
tle royals involved adolescent boys, who, often blindfolded and sometimes with 
one arm tied behind their backs, would compete to be the last one standing. 
'Manufactured disunity among blacks was the barely concealed plot,' Andrew 
Kaye argues, 'redolent of the old days on the plantation.' 187 In Ellison's novel, the 
protagonist has been invited to speak before 'a gathering of the town's leading 
white citizens' - the crowd will 'judge truly [his] ability' and it will be a 'triumph 
for [the whole black] community'. In fact what happens is that several black boys 
his age are forced to watch a dance performed by a naked white woman with 'a 
small American flag tattooed upon her belly', and then are blindfolded and made 
to fight each other before scrambling for the coins that are their 'reward'. 188 Ini- 
tially ten boys are involved, but soon the number is reduced to two: Invisible 
Man and Tatlock. 189 When Invisible Man suggests, 'Fake it like I knocked you 
out, you can have the prize,' Tatlock replies, I'll break your behind'. 'For them?' 
the narrator asks. 'For me, sonofabitch!' 190 Unlike his opponent, Invisible Man is 
convinced that a fight between black men in front of a white audience cannot be 
a genuine competition, and certainly not 'sport'. Budd Schulberg's description 
of boxing as 'show business with blood' is reinforced here, and throughout the 
novel, by references to the circus (the white woman, the unattainable prize, is 
described as a circus kewpie doll). 191 But Invisible Man's awareness that his ex- 
pected role is as an entertainer does not extend to the speech he is about to give. 
Indeed, during the fight, he can only think of his speech, and despite the humil- 
iation he is suffering, of impressing the white audience. The fight is thus a com- 
mentary on that imminent verbal performance. 192 

In numerous interviews Ellison spoke of the battle royal episode as a type 
of initiation rite involving acceptance of white supremacy, a version of the ini- 
tiation fights that he would have read about in Richard Wright's autobiogra- 
phy, Black Boy (1945). 193 Like Invisible Man, Black Boy is structured around a 
series of flights and fights. The most striking fight comes in Chapter Twelve in 
which Wright describes working in an optical factory in Memphis, a city he had 
hoped would be more enlightened than his native Jackson, Mississippi. Two in- 
cidents disabuse him of this belief. First, he witnesses the transformation, for a 
mere 25c, of one of his most intelligent co-workers, the 'hardheaded, sensible' 


Shorty, into 'a clown of the most debased and degraded type'. This is merely 
the prelude to his own degradation. Worn down by insistence, Wright is goaded 
to fight Harrison, who works for a rival company, for $5 apiece. When Wright 
objects, arguing that 'those white men will be looking at us, laughing at us', Har- 
rison is dismissive: 'What have we got to lose?' Wright's acknowledgment of 
having nothing to lose is what makes him both willing to take part in a perform- 
ance designed to 'fool them white men', and so physically angry that he cannot 
help going beyond the performance and hurting Harrison. 

The shame and anger we felt for having allowed ourselves to be duped 
crept into our blows and blood ran into our eyes, half blinding us. The 
hate we felt for the men whom we had tried to cheat went into the 
blows we threw at each other. 

Afterwards, Harrison and Wright avoid each other. 'I felt that I had done some- 
thing unclean, something for which I could never properly atone.' The symbol- 
ism of this fight is the antithesis of the glorious defeat of Covey, or Camera, or 
Schmeling. Wright and Harrison fight in the spotlight ('a bright electric bulb 
glowed above our heads') but it is not that of Madison Square Garden. If the 
'white folks formed a kind of superworld', black folks operate in the under- 
world. The performance takes place 'in the basement of a Main Street building' 
before an all-male, all-white audience. 194 

Perhaps the most obvious point to note about Ralph Ellison's version of the 
rite is the gap between the narrator's retrospective understanding of its 
significance and the understanding of his adolescent self. Invisible Man (as a 
young man) does not realize what is going on, and so the novel repeats the rite 
of initiation, again and again, through a series of real and metaphorical fights. 
The repetition is so insistent that the chapters of the novel begin to seem less like 
episodes in a picaresque adventure than rounds in a boxing match. I want to 
concentrate on two particular episodes and consider how attention to the box- 
ing allusions can aid in their interpretation. 195 

In Chapter Three, Invisible Man takes the college benefactor Norton, upset 
and in need of whisky after his encounter with Trueblood, to a bar called The 
Golden Day. Many have noted the allusion to the title of Lewis Mumford's 1924 
pioneering study of the American Renaissance, and argued that Ellison is tak- 
ing issue with Mumford's lack of attention to slavery. 196 But there is another al- 
lusion at the beginning of the chapter. When the narrator approaches the bar, 
he overhears a man describing the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight in a virtuoso 
blend of anatomical detail, invective and graveyard humour. The description 
ends with the phrase, 'Naturally, there was no other therapy possible.' 197 The 
allusion to the 'Golden Day' of American literature is thus complicated by an 
allusion to the day (4 July no less) when the Man with the Golden Smile chal- 
lenged assumptions of white supremacy. The fight the men recall is one which 
was not simply, as in the case of the battle royal, a performance, but a genuine 


victory- an effective form of 'therapy'. 198 Here, however, black power manifests 
itself as stylistic barroom bravado in what seems to be an imitation of the pub 
scene in Joyce's 'Cyclops', where Alf Bergan and Joe Hynes discuss the recent 
Keogh-Bennett bout. 1 " 

At this stage, the narrator is unable to grasp the possibility of any kind of 
bravado, as becomes clear in the remainder of the chapter. This scene is fol- 
lowed almost immediately by a real fight when the veterans turn on their atten- 
dant, and give him some 'therapy'. The narrator says of the men in the bar that 
they 'hooted and yelled as at a football game', or, we might add, a boxing match. 
He describes feeling 'such an excitement that I wanted to join them' and his 
chance to get involved comes soon after, when he goes looking for Norton, hid- 
ing under the stairs. His response, when confronted close-up with a white man, 
is, however, far from that of Jack Johnson: 

some of the milling men pushed me up against him and suddenly a 
mass of whiteness was looming up two inches from my eyes; it was only 
his face but I felt a shudder of nameless horror. I had never been so 
close to a white person before. In a panic I struggled to get away. 200 

The competing rhetoric of fighting and the circus (both structured perform- 
ances) and running (a refusal of structure or a recognition of its absence) are 
here, and throughout the novel, set up as alternatives. 201 They come together 
again in one of the final scenes in the book. Shortly before the riots which end 
the novel, the narrator comes across a huge woman with a beer barrel, sitting 
on a milk wagon and singing: 

If it hadn't been for the referee, 
Joe Louis woulda killed 
Jim Jeffrie 
Free beer!! 

In the song she confuses Joe Louis (a credit to the race) with bad Jack Johnson. 202 
By substituting the names, Ellison seems to be suggesting that despite the 'dead- 
pan', Louis is carrying on Johnson's work, work that the heavyweight woman also 
participates in as, with her 'enormous hand[s]', she 'sends quart after quart of 
milk crashing into the street'. But although this action, and the riots that follow, 
are intended to be a form of 'therapy', the reference to the circus (she is like a tipsy 
fat lady in a circus parade'), reminds us again that therapy is also a performance. 203 
Invisible Man proper concludes with the narrator plung[ing] down' a man- 
hole as once again, he runs away, this time from two white men with baseball 
bats. 'I was just fixing to slug the bastard,' one says. Underground, he finds him- 
self 'beyond the point of exhaustion, too tired to close my eyes.' The fight, 
though, is not over. He has not been knocked out. He is in 'a state neither of 
dreaming nor of waking, but somewhere in between'. And it is in this state, and 


under the influence of marijuana and Louis Armstrong's 'What Did I Do to Be 
So Black and Blue', that he tells the story of the yokel and the prize-fighter: 

Once I saw a prize fighter boxing a yokel. The fighting was swift and 
amazingly scientific ... He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel 
held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling 
about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked sci- 
ence, speed, and footwork as cold as a well-digger's posterior. The smart 
money hit the canvas . . . The yokel had stepped inside of his oppo- 
nent's sense of time. 204 

Invisible Man is here 'outside of time' but what I suggest he (and Ellison) learn 
through his 'hibernation' is how to step 'inside': how to fight differently, how to 
become the yokel inside of modernism. 

A possible way of reading the epilogue then is that Invisible Man decides to 
get up and go back to the fight, before he is counted out. In the final pages, the 
narrator acknowledges, with an ironic nod to Hemingway, that 'it's "winner take 
nothing" that is the great truth of our country or any country', and recognizes 
that although 'there's still a conflict within me', now 'I am invisible, not blind'. 
What he calls the 'victory of conscious perception' has been won. 205 If we read 
the novel as a kiinstlerroman, we can see that the progress 'from ranter to writer' 
is also one from bodily inarticulacy and blindness - represented by the blind- 
folded boys in the battle royal - to a disembodied articulacy. 206 Yet this very 
disembodiment is still imagined in terms of bodies. Invisible Man's version of 
Stephan Dedalus's dedication to 'silence, exile and cunning' is yet again to talk 
about boxers. 

With these questions in mind, I want to return to Ellison's comparison of 
writing and fighting and how it might enable a consideration of style and form. 
Asserting frequently that 'technique' was what was needed 'to free ourselves', El- 
lison asked where that 'technique' could be learned. 207 His customary answer was 
that it lay in 'vernacular idiom in the arts'; indeed there, 'lessons are to be learned 
in everything from power to elegance'. When challenged in an interview with 
the claim that 'the black masses are uninterested in elegance', he responded (in 
terms that recall Weldon Johnson on Jack Johnson 50 years earlier): 

Elegance turns up in every aspect of Afro-American culture, from ser- 
mons to struts . . . Aesthetically speaking, when form is blended suc- 
cessfully with function, elegance results. Black Americans expect 
elegance even from their prizefighters and basketball players and much 
of the appeal of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis sprang from the fact that 
each was as elegant as the finest of ballet dancers. 208 

Connecting the world of sport and that of art for Ellison is not simply the bring- 
ing together of 'power' and 'elegance', although this combination is important. 


Sport and art could also be seen as related forms of 'symbolic action', to use 
Kenneth Burke's term. 209 Ellison was a close friend of Burke and was very inter- 
ested in his anthropological understanding of literary works as forms of rit- 
ual. 210 Burke's critical method, which drew on psychoanalysis, Marxism and 
linguistics, as well as anthropology, repeatedly stressed the importance of under- 
standing the effect the work of art has on the reader. 211 What the work is in 
itself is less important than what it allows its author to express and its audience 
to experience. 212 'All action', Burke proclaimed, 'is poetic'; the only difference 
being that 'some people write their poems on paper, and others carve theirs out 
of jugular veins.' 213 Or, as Ellison reworked these ideas, some 'act' 'poetically' 
by boxing, others by writing novels. It was high praise indeed, therefore, for 
Ellison to recall Wright as 'a Negro American writer as randy, as courageous, 
and irrepressible as Jack Johnson'. 'We literary people', he went on, should 
always keep a sharp eye on what's happening in the unintellectualized areas 
of our experience.' 214 Bringing together novels and boxing, or Keats and the 
carving of jugular veins, does more, however, than simply initiate a form of 
cultural studies based on performativity. Boxing is 'show business with blood; 
in acknowledging the show business in Burke's theory, and in the fiction of 
Wright and Ellison, we should not forget the aggression, the desire for thera- 
peutic blood-letting, which both enact. 

In recent years, the tendency has been to regard Ellison as a quintessential 
fifties liberal - and thus a figure of deadpan complicity. 215 But a fuller under- 
standing of what boxing meant to him would suggest that there was more of 
the Johnsonian golden grin in Ralph Ellison than the Louis deadpan. 216 Ellison 
himself said as much in a 1956 letter to Albert Murray: 

with writing I learned from Joe and Sugar Ray (though that old danc- 
ing master, wit, and bull-balled stud, Jack Johnson is really my mentor, 
because he knew that if you operated with skill and style you could rise 
above all that being-a-credit-to-your-race-crap because he was a credit 
to the human race and because he could make that much body and 
bone move with such precision to his command all other men had a 
chance to beat the laws of probability and anything else that stuck up 
its head and if he liked a woman he took her and told those who didn't 
like it to lump it and that is the way true studs have always acted). 217 



Poster advertising The Champ (1931). 



Poster advertising Golden Boy (1939). 




r^T'i A. ItilMlP t 1 




THAliri i* , x«iir.''.ni 


Poster advertising Nothing Sacred (1937). 


Tfie StOTy OT a, JUy th#t tiOmZ n gO fer*J Poster advertising Body and Soul 




/? m-riW «a4tteu**t/t,»r THE EHTEMSE STUDIOS 

ii^erty 5 


Louis vs. Schmeling on the cover 
of Liberty magazine, 25 June 

ITS HVEHGt I M IFia-Hr Wi* t» iHri SduMfag by JOE LOUS 
I'd K> IT ACMK-taw I Wi KbkL 0«r la* k, MIX SGHMBMG 
HOW I UKf» ITKME W«-» Udi br *■*•» mi OinHin 

Benny Andrews, The Champion, 1968. 

New GIs in Vietnam: 
commanding them 
in the old way is out 

Look out- 
he's back 

A different 
Muhammad Alt 

to the ring 

'Look out - he's back', cover of Life, 9 November 1970. 


Cover of Sports Illustrated, 28 October 1974: 'The Fight in Africa'. 


Andv Warhol, Muhammad All: Hand on Chin, 1977. 

Cover of Ntozake Shange, Float Like a Butter- 
fly, with illustrations by Edel Rodriguez (New 
York, 2002). 

Poster advertising When We Were Kings 

Poster advertising a.k.a. Cassias Clay 




Elliott Pinkney (with 
the assistance of 
Sam Barrow and 
Lloyd Goodney), 
detail of Visions and 
Motions, 1993. 


Harold King, cover 
of W. J. Weatherby, 
Squaring Off: Mailer 
v, Baldwin (1977). 

Sylvester Stallone in 
Rocky (1976). 


Cover of Superman 
vs. Muhammad Ali, 
dc Comics (1978). 

Eduardo Arroyo, Direct Panama, 1984. 


Keith Haring, 

Boxer, 1988. 


Godfried Donkor, Financial Times Boxers, No. 2, 2001, collage on paper. 





An overrated cimmp. 

An overwelitfrt d tamp. 

No matter wtio ends up cm top, 

only ono nian can be Mn£. 


77zf Grarf Wfa'fe Wy/>e poster, 1996. 


Christy Martin on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1996. 




Annie Leibovitz, poster advertising Women exhibition, Washington, dc, 1999-2000. 


Battle of the Blues, 

vol. 4, album cover, 



Emma Amos, 

Muhammad Ali, 



Peter Howson, 
Boxen, 2002, pastel 
on paper. 


Paul-Felix Montez, 
The Gloves, 2006, 
model for a 70-foot 
sculpture of steel 
and bronze gloves 
above granite, 
shown at the 21st 
Century Las Vegas 
Monuments exhibi- 
tion, Las Vegas. 

King of the Hill, and Further 
Raging Bulls 

Many of the first experiments with television (as with cinema) focused on sport- 
ing events. The 1936 Olympic Games was watched by 15,000 viewers stationed 
at 27 'tv locales' throughout Berlin; the following year, the bbc covered the 
Oxford and Cambridge boat race; and in May 1939, the American nbc broadcast 
footage of a college baseball game. Two weeks later, Lou Nova's defeat of Max 
Baer at the Yankee Stadium became the first televised heavyweight boxing 
match. Sport provided the new medium of television with a ready-made cast 
of stars, and provided numerous events to fill out the initially sparse schedules 
of the networks. 1 

Boxing proved as amenable to early television as it had to early cinema. 
Until post-war developments brought larger screens, close-ups, slow motion, 
colour and instant replays, team sports like baseball were not easy to follow on 
television - the field was too big, the players too dispersed, the ball too small and 
too fast-moving. Boxing, however, with its well-lit enclosed setting and cast of 
only two, was ideal for the tv screen, and during the late forties and early fifties, 
the sport became 'television's darling', with prime-time fights broadcast almost 
every evening. 2 In 1950, only 9 per cent of American homes had tv, and most 
men watched the fights in neighbourhood bars (illus. 136). By 1955, however, 
55.7 per cent of homes had sets, and commentators marvelled at the very idea 
of sport being available 'from a sofa!' 3 Television, one journalist remarked, 'has 
all the impact of one of Marciano's punches', but he was sorry when it 'tossed 
Joe Louis right into our living room on his back'. 4 

If memoirs of the thirties tended to depict the family gathered around the 
radio listening to reports of Joe Louis, those of the fifties repeated the scene but 
substituted television and Rocky Marciano or Sugar Ray Robinson. 5 'The most 
vibrant memories I bear from my childhood,' writes Gerald Early, 'are of my 
uncles crowded around a very small black-and-white television, drinking beer 
and watching the Gillette Friday-night fights'. 6 Henry Louis Gates, meanwhile, 
describes how his home town of Piedmont, Virginia, 'was transformed from a 
radio culture to one with the fullest range of television, literally overnight'. 
'What interracial sex was to the seventies, interracial sports were to the fifties. 


BwaJg 8 


'Joe's Tavern', 

The Ring, April 1959. 


Advertisement for 
Pabst Blue Ribbon 
and Wednesday 
Night Fights, The 
Ring, July 1956. 


Advertisement for 
'tv Fights', The Ring, 
February 1955. 

Except for sports, we rarely saw a colored per- 
son on tv.' 7 

Boxing's success as a television sport 
was partly due to the fact that the structure 
of a bout -three-minute rounds separated 
by one-minute intermissions - seemed cus- 
tom-made for advertising. The two main 
sponsors during the fifties were Pabst Blue 
Ribbon beer, associated with cbs's Wednes- 
day night fights, and Gillette razors, the pro- 
moter of nbc's Friday night Cavalcade of 
Sport (illus. 137). 8 These products suggest 
that the market mainly consisted of men, 
but boxing was often promoted as family 
entertainment. The cover of the February 
1955 issue of tv Fights magazine, for example, imagines a white-collared fan 
being joined by his wife and son to watch the boxing; inside an article explains 
'How women score tv fights' (illus. 138). The idea of boxing entering the domes- 
tic sphere inspired mid-twentieth-century cartoonists as much as it had their 
nineteenth-century equivalents. A recurrent claim was that the 'live' fights 
that took place in suburban sitting rooms were better viewing than those on 
screen (illus. 139). 

Boxing commentators were quick to note the impact that the new medium 
was having on the sport, and most of their conclusions were negative. Sports- 

... •• ■ 

l?i*n'fi miw llw 
H ntur-Jj i \"wc\i\ }is;lil* 
mi \'\ — HinlH'hnl hv lln 
I ■• 1 ■- 1 1 ■ ilMipul lt< c, L I"!" 1 

Vl limiti 1 . m 111 11ml U«*i(ik 

I •.. <TII i|||u\ I Ik Ih ill- « lll| 
I 1 im|. JlMllHf! |rLl«h . if 

I'jIi-I blur llitiliuli, in" ■! I™ jflu/ 

, nnnifwtr! 


"1 1 e »th ™w wd Mjh ilc- /hPrcT. 

writing itself was offered as an alternative 
to 'this ridiculous gadget called television': 
writers such as John Lardner and A. J. 
Liebling (both in The New Yorker) sug- 
gested that both boxing and what might 
be called boxing belles lettres were endan- 
gered species in need of careful preserva- 
tion. Between 1947 and 1951, Lardner 
published a series of essays entitled 'That 
was Pugilism', vividly evoking the era of 
his father, Ring Lardner, as a time of wild 
adventures and idiosyncratic figures. 
'Things are not the same in the wake of the 
Second World War,' he complained, 'The 
fighters are more businesslike; their train- 
ing camps are respectable and dull . . .; the managers and "characters" on the 
fringe of the show are organized and syndicated.' 9 

Liebling saw his essays as a direct response to 'the anticipated lean aesthetic 
period induced by television'. His unlikely model for the rearguard defence of 
boxing was Pierce Egan, whom he declared 'the greatest writer about the ring 
who ever lived'. The Sweet Science, a collection of Liebling's New Yorker pieces, 
was, he declared, an 'Extension of the great historian's Magnum Opus'; the 
title itself is a phrase of Egan's. The Regency commentator is evoked and praised 
as the Herodotus, the Holinshed, the Edward Gibbon (among others) of the 
English prize ring, while Boxiana is dubbed its Mille et Une Nuits. 10 Liebling's 
concern, like Egan's, was as much with the subculture of boxing as with the 
sport; in mid-century America, he felt that both were under threat. But, unlike 
newspaper columnists such as Dan Parker and Jimmy Cannon, he was not 
interested in exposing mobsters or the machinations of corporate interests. 11 
Instead, The Sweet Science offered itself as an elegy to the last of boxing's pictur- 
esque oddballs and to 'the verbal dandyism of Egan'. 12 As Fred Warner points 
out, few readers who encountered Liebling's work in The New Yorker cared much 
about boxing. They accepted 'exposure to a brutal and alien sport because they 
loved good prose'. 13 Liebling's writing is often witty and always digressive, and 
he worked hard to charm and flatter his readers with frequent allusions to 
literature and art. Floyd Patterson, after his defeat of Archie Moore, is described 
as being in the position 'of a Delacroix who has run out of canvas'. 14 The New 
Yorker, as Robert Warshaw pointed out in 1947, 'has always dealt with experience 
... by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it'. 15 

Much as he deplored television's devotion to 'the sale of beer and razor 
blades', Liebling's objections extended beyond commercialization. In an essay 
called 'Boxing with the Naked Eye', he argued that the experience of watching 
boxing was much diminished by television, and that you could only have a 'feel- 
ing of participation' by being there in the stadium. 'For one thing', he quipped, 


Cartoon in The Ring, 

April 1956. 



Rocky Graziano and 
Lou Stillman out- 
side Stillman's Gym, 
from Somebody Up 
There Likes Me: My 
Life So Far (New 
York, 1955). 

'you can't tell the fighters what to do. This was partly an expression of snob- 
bery, a feeling that the aficionado was being ousted by the 'big and silly televi- 
sion audience', and one that sat easily among The New Yorkers advertisements 
for imported whisky and Spode dinnerware 'for the hard-to-please'. 'The masses 
are asses,' an old fighter called Al Thoma told Liebling, 'There are no connois- 
seurs. The way most of these guys fight, you'd think they were two fellows hav- 
ing a fight in a barroom.' 17 

More importantly, Liebling argued that by creating a monopoly on boxing, 
television had fundamentally distorted the nature of the sport. First of all, the 
live audience was severely diminished (ticket sales at Madison Square Garden 
were down by as much as 80 per cent). Furthermore, he maintained, 'the clients 
of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night 
of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neigh- 
bourhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and 
journeymen to mature their skills'. One of Liebling's most famous (and most 
Egan-like) coinages was to dub the famous New York gym, Stillman's, the 'Uni- 
versity of Eighth Avenue'. 18 This proved the unlikely prompt for a scene in Stan- 
ley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1955 musical satire, It's Always Fair Weather. Fight 
manager Ted Riley (played by Kelly) arranges to meet television executive, 
Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), at the gym. Arriving early, she is instructed in 
the history of the place - 'Why these old walls are as steeped in tradition as the 

ivy-covered walls of Harvard! '-before join- 
ing the residents in a song-and-dance trib- 
ute to their 'alma mater', 'Stillman's, Dear 
Old Stillman's' (illus. 140). 19 But these high 
educational standards were under threat. 
Television's constant demand for fresh box- 
ers resulted in the closure of many of the 
small clubs in which the sport's traditional 
apprenticeship had taken place. Mean- 
while, 'the peddlers' public' was asked to 
believe that 'a boy with perhaps ten or 
fifteen fights' was a 'topnotch performer.' 
On occasion, this could prove fatal. In 1954, 
for example, Ed Sanders died after being 
knocked out in the eleventh round of a tele- 
vised bout, his ninth professional fight. 'In 
more normal pre-television times,' noted 
Liebling, 'a fellow out of the amateurs 
would spend three years in four-, six-, and 
eight-round bouts in small clubs before 
attempting ten.' 20 More tv deaths fol- 
lowed. In 1963, Davey Moore died after be- 
ing knocked out by Sugar Ramos, inspiring 



protest songs by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. 
The previous year, Benny Paret had died a 
week after having been knocked uncon- 
scious by Emile Griffith during the world 
welterweight title fight. Many tuned in to 
abc to see the final, fatal punches via a new 
replay system. 

The story of boxing (and indeed of 
most sports) from the early nineteenth 
century onward has been one of gradual 
transformation into mass-market enter- 
tainment. Each new technological devel- 
opment (film, radio and television) has 
brought a larger audience to individual 
contests. These changes in method of 
consumption have, at every stage, been 
accompanied by changes in methods of 

production - in the supply and control of boxers and fights. Television signalled 
the biggest shift (illus. 141). After 1950, if an up-and-coming boxer wanted a 
chance at a title, it was no longer enough to hook up with the manager who hap- 
pened to have connections at Madison Square Garden (as Dempsey and Louis 
had done). 'Commercial-driven televised bouts promised riches beyond the 
rewards possible from ticket sales in even the biggest arenas', recalls Truman 
Gibson. 21 A member of the newly established International Boxing Club (ibc), 
Gibson, along with Jim Norris and Arthur Wirtz, became one of the most pow- 
erful boxing promoters of the fifties. As Gibson later told the Senate Subcom- 
mittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, 'during the period 1950 to 1959, practically 
all of the championships in the major weight categories were staged by one or 
the other of our organizations or in conjunction with our television presenta- 
tions'. 22 The boxing world was still closely tied in with that of organized crime, 
although Gibson maintains it was often 'more a matter of appearance than sub- 
stance'. 23 Nevertheless, forties operators such as Frankie Carbo and Blinky 
Palermo were still around, and fights were still routinely fixed. 24 More impor- 
tantly, the ibc (popularly known as 'the Octopus') needed 'a plentiful supply of 
fighters': 'a hundred fights a year required us to come up with four hundred 
fighters', Gibson reckoned; two for each 'main event' and two waiting in the 
wings in case of a quick knockout. 'Television ruled us . . . We didn't care 
whether managers or promoters cozied up to Carbo or warred with him.' 25 

If the 'fight racket' remained 'the swill barrel of sports', as sportswriter 
Jimmy Cannon had declared in 1948, this suited Hollywood very well. 26 After 
1950, however, noir fatalism gradually gave way to a reformist zeal more famil- 
iar in the social-problem cinema of the Depression. Consider, for example, Elia 
Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), in which Marlon Brando played Terry Mol- 
loy, a washed-up prize-fighter who famously thinks he 'coulda been a contender', 



Cartoon in The Ring, 




Advertisement for 
The Harder They Fall, 






the 'next Billy Conn'. Terry finally gets his big fight in the real world, when, after 
much soul-searching, he decides to expose the underworld infiltration of the 
longshoremen's union and to confront a mob leader directly. 'Everybody's got 
a racket', he says; the 'hawks' always prey on the 'pigeons' down below. 27 Fifties 
boxing films (like many other Cold War dramas) tend to suggest that the worst 
possible thing to be is an 'organization man' - never mind whether the organi- 
zation is the mob, the union, the Communist Party or the army. 28 By contrast, 
the free man is 'inner directed', to borrow another term from fifties sociology, 
and his integrity often derives from saying no. 29 In James Jones's From Here to 
Eternity (1951; filmed in 1953), Private Prewitt, having once blinded a man in the 
ring, refuses to join the regimental boxing team. 'I don't see why a man should 
fight unless he wanted to,' he tells the disbelieving captain. 'A man has to decide 
for himself what he has to do.' 3 ° 

The Harder They Fall (1956), based on Budd Schulberg's 1947 novel, focused 
on the culpability of Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart in his final role), a has-been 
sportswriter who, in order to get 'a bank account', becomes the press agent for 
Toro Moreno (illus. 142). Loosely based on the thirties heavyweight, Primo Cam- 
era, the gigantic Moreno can hardly put two punches together. Although it seems 
that size is still everything, the days in which all that a set-up needed was a 
crooked manager and a willing fighter are long gone; Willis is just one of many 

employees hired by Nick Benko (Rod 
Steiger) to steer Moreno towards a lucra- 
tive title fight. There are lots of manage- 
ment meetings and the talk is always of 
'business'. When his wife, Beth, objects to 
the nature of this business, Eddie responds, 
'You sell a fighter, you sell soap. What's the 
difference?' The question is repeated sev- 
eral times, but the answer is always the 
same. We are never in doubt that by be- 
coming Nick's publicity agent, Eddie has 
made a deal with the devil. In order to build 
Moreno's reputation before the big fight in 
New York, Eddie uses every trick he can 
think of, including touring the country in 
a garishly painted bus (a gimmick that Cas- 
sius Clay later copied). These traditional 
methods are fine, but as Nick points out, 
the introduction of 'coast-to-coast telecasts' 
has made publicity much easier. 31 (At one 
point, Beth watches a fixed Californian 
fight at Benko's comfortable home in New 
York - the whole family gather around the 
set, and Nick's little girl watches from his 

>4li -tlnjr - try to imp 
tli> fti_|ni <if Hi. r )il~n in ».. ¥urt. DiIiibb. 
KjftUU C I KJf Uld l£il Anf 1141 T . . .1KT Ai 4 "tfclT" afe|*.C 

■ Utilt lOnt! UWl M> ClM lAftlBt , . . mctfJI. . . 
TO Ukftm TUT PU1 Hill T*. ■**!♦ uiwaml ibil 




knee. 32 ) Everyone describes Eddie as 'a good man', and at first he thinks he can 
be so simply by adjusting the system a little bit - by making sure Moreno's 'tank 
fighters' are paid directly; by helping them look good' to save their pride. Even 
after a man dies in the ring, he persuades Toro to keep going so that they can 
both get the final pay-off. But, after a careful consideration of the cooked books 
reveals Toro's share of the million-dollar gate to be a measly $49.07, Eddie quits. 
In the final scene, he threatens to expose Nick in a series of muckraking articles. 
'People still know how to read,' he says. 'The people, the people,' mocks Nick, 
'The little people, they sit and get fat and fall asleep in front of the television set 
with a belly full of beer.' But Eddie, like Schulberg, and Liebling, believes that 
the integrity of the individual's written word can triumph over the opiate power 
of the television freak show. The film ends as he sits down at his battered old 
typewriter, and the camera closes in on the sentence he types: 'Professional box- 
ing should be banned even if it takes an Act of Congress to do it.' 33 

As the decade drew to a close, boxing's appeal for television began to 
diminish. In 1952, fight-nights attracted 31 per cent of the prime-time audience; by 
1959, their share had shrunk to 11 per cent. There were several reasons for this. 
Most important was the fact that viewers now had considerably more choice in 
their viewing, including in 1956, Rod Serling's play Requiem for a Heavyweight, 
welcomed as an 'indictment' of a 'so-called sport'. 34 Boxing itself was losing its 
appeal. After Rocky Marciano retired in 1956, his successors (Moore, Patterson, 
Johansson and Liston) did not attract the same support from the sponsors, net- 
works or viewers. Prolonged congressional hearings highlighted boxing's links 
to organized crime, and reports of fighters dying from injuries sustained in the 
ring (nineteen in 1953) further sullied its image. 35 In 1959, Carbo was sent to jail 
and the Supreme Court declared the ibc to be an illegal monopoly; the follow- 
ing year, nbc announced that it was dropping its Friday night fights. It was not 
until Cassius Clay emerged on the scene that television boxing revived. 


The difference between a history of boxing and a history of the cultural represen- 
tation of boxing becomes apparent if we consider the part played in each by 
Sugar Ray Robinson (illus. 143). While Sugar Ray is revered by many as the all-time 
best 'pound-for-pound' fighter, he never became a cultural symbol in the way that 
Johnson, Dempsey, Louis or Ali did. This is both partly because less attention is 
paid to welter- and middleweights (he fought as both), the fact that during the late 
forties and fifties there was no obvious story to be told about his victories. 36 Sugar 
Ray Robinson is a kind of interregnum figure in the history of culturally and 
politically significant boxers, between Louis (whom he idolized) and Ali (who idol- 
ized him). Welterweight champion from 1945 to 1951, he reinvented himself as a 
middleweight and won the title five times between 1951 and i960. In 1957, as Maya 
Angelou notes, he 'lost his middleweight title, won it back, then lost it again, all 
in a matter of months'. Angelou uses Robinson's status as an on-again, off-again 






SU CAR til 




*V-tl[l 1 hlB'-^l 

»r*l"i ■;hi«i'. ■«» 


Sugar Ray Robinson 
on us commemora- 
tive stamps, 2006. 

champion as a metaphor for 'the maze of 
contradictions' that was the civil rights 
movement in the late fifties. 37 Out of the 
ring, the contradictions continued. Sugar 
Ray set up numerous businesses on 
Harlem's Seventh Avenue, and he and his 
stylish wife, Edna Mae, were dubbed 'the 
Prince and Princess of Harlem'. In 1953, 
however, the couple moved to the white sub- 
urb of Riverdale and their dream home was 
featured on the cover of Ebony magazine. 
Well-known for his processed hair, pink 
Cadillacs, and appearances on the Ed Sulli- 
van Show, Sugar Ray Robinson was also of- 
ten outspoken about racial discrimination. 38 
The fifties may have witnessed the first 
moves towards desegregation, but boxing 
fans (and therefore tv networks) still 
wanted to see interracial contests. Robin- 
son's most publicized fights were a series 
of six (between 1942 and 1951) against Jake 
La Motta. Because of Martin Scorsese's 
film, RagingBull, La Motta is now better remembered than his rival, but Robin- 
son, 'the matador', won all but one fight. At the weigh-in for the last round of 
the 'bitter feud', Arna Bontemps noted (in a biography intended for children) 
that the men 'exchanged nostalgic remarks': '"Jake, I made you," Ray kidded. "I 
done all right for you," the Bull chuckled.' 39 Ten rounds later, however, La Motta 
conceded that 'the black bastard' had given him 'about as bad a beating as I've 
ever had'. 40 These remarks were not quoted by Bontemps. 

Another awkward but powerful puncher who appealed to white fans was 
Rocky Marciano, 'the archetypal working-class stiff from blue-collar Brockton'. 41 
After defeating the aging Louis on national television in 1951, Marciano became 
the 'white hope' of the Southern press, while sportswriters in the North merely 
noted that 'it would be a change-of-pace to have a white boy on top after all 
these years'. 42 Because of his slugging style, Marciano was frequently described 
as 'the new Dempsey' and considered 'good for boxing' - a phrase which Rus- 
sell Sullivan translates as 'black champion versus Great White Hope made dol- 
lars and cents'. 43 Although the majority of title-holders since the thirties 
(including Louis and Sugar Ray) had been black, their challengers were usually 
white; 'promoters rarely offered the same money for bouts against equally tough 
black challengers'. 44 As a plausible white hope, Marciano had a relatively 
straightforward passage to a title shot. From 1952, when he took the champion- 
ship from Jersey Joe Walcott, to 1956, when he retired undefeated with a record 
of 49 wins, he was largely matched against black opponents. 45 The vacant title 


was filled when the 21-year-old Floyd Patterson beat Archie Moore to become 
the youngest ever heavyweight champion. The era of white vs. black heavy- 
weight fights seemed to be over, except for a brief interlude in 1959 and i960, 
when Patterson fought the Swedish boxer, Ingemar Johansson (he lost the first 
and won the second). 46 The attention given to those fights suggests the sym- 
bolism of black vs. white boxing was still very much alive. 

The novelist Harvey Swandos wrote an essay about the first Patterson- 
Johansson fight for a new literary journal called Noble Savage (where it appeared 
alongside 'And Hickman Arrives', an extract from Ralph Ellison's unfinished 
second novel). 47 For Swandos, the fight had 'no racially symbolic overtones'. 
'The position of the American Negro,' he maintained, 'has changed so greatly 
that it is no longer necessary for a Negro heavyweight champion to be a hero to 
his people; when he is beaten it is no longer inevitable that the defeat will be re- 
garded by Negroes as a racial setback (or by whites as a white conquest).' In this 
'new era', boxers should no longer consider themselves 'Walking Symbols'. 48 
John Lardner's 'That Was Pugilism' series in The New Yorker also located racial 
prejudice firmly in the past. For Lardner, the success of Louis, and then Patter- 
son, had put racism, and thus the concept of the 'white hope', to rest. 49 Noting 
the crowd's support (both in cheers and bets) for Patterson in 1959, Liebling 
concurred: 'I felt a warm glow of gratification - we were a solid patrie, where 
American citizenship meant more than race or color'. 50 Unsurprisingly, black 
commentators responded rather differently to the story of Patterson and 
Johansson, a story that many felt did still carry 'racially symbolic overtones'. In 
1970 Addison Gayle Jr recalled the fight as emblematic of the daily struggles of 
men like himself. Gayle tells the story of a humiliating incident in which he was 
refused a job because of his race, but like the ex-heavyweight champion, I was 
on my feet searching for another job less than fifteen minutes after absorbing a 
crushing blow to my psyche. 51 A more radical interpretation of Patterson's sym- 
bolism was offered by Eldridge Cleaver. Whites, he argued, 'despised' Johansson 
for knocking out Patterson because it contradicted their image of the 'black 
man as the Supermasculine Menial'. 52 

After i960, interracial fighting increasingly took place in the realms of white 
fantasy. Although Esquire magazine liked to imagine Dempsey defeating the 
current crop of black boxers, fight fans were mostly faced with a choice between 
two black boxers. 53 This could be problematic for blacks as well as whites. Ollie 
Harrington's popular comic strip character Bootsie complains to his wife as 
they watch television: 'why don't the naacp make 'em stop usin' cullud boys to 
fight one 'nother. Don't they realize that causes a whole lot of confusion 'mongst 
us fight fans?' (illus. 144) 54 When Patterson fought Johansson, black fans had no 
trouble picking sides, but when he took on Sonny Liston, they faced what James 
Baldwin called a 'terrible American dilemma'. Whether or not Baldwin was con- 
sciously evoking Gunnar Myrdal's classic 1944 study of 'the Negro Problem and 
Modern Democracy', An American Dilemma, the problem he identified was one 
of political stance. 'I feel terribly ambivalent, as many Negroes do these days,' 



A cartoon by Ollie 



.Mt' i-"r* f~<r n* wwt»« «u*« '*m 

Baldwin wrote, 'since we are all trying to decide, in one way or another, which 
attitude, in our terrible American dilemma, is the most effective: the disciplined 
sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston'. 55 That choice was 
particularly acute in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles of 1962, and not 
every black intellectual opted for Baldwin's ambivalence. LeRoi Jones saw it as 
a 'simple conflict'. 

"They" painted Liston Black. They painted Patterson White . . . Which 
way would the black man go? ... A lot of Negroes said Patterson. (That 
old hope come back on you, that somehow this is my country, and 
ought'n I be allowed to live in it, I mean, to make it. From the bottom 
to the top? Only the poorest black men have never fallen, at least tem- 
porarily, for the success story.) A lot of Negroes said Liston. 56 

If Patterson was a model of integrationist politics -Jones described him as a 
'black Horatio Alger, the glad hand of integration' and Norman Mailer dubbed 
him 'a liberal's liberal' - Sonny Liston, with his prison record and mob 


connections, was boxing's 'ultimate bad ass' - 'the big black negro in every white 
man's hallway', said Jones; 'Faust', said Mailer. 57 In a telling echo of Roosevelt's 
meeting with Louis before the second Schmeling fight, Kennedy invited Patter- 
son to the White House and reputedly told him, 'you've got to beat this guy'. 58 
Unable to fulfil his President's wishes, Patterson was knocked out by Liston 
(who outweighed him by more than 25 pounds) in the first round. 'Before the 
referee could count to ten,' William Nack wrote, 'Liston had become a mural- 
sized American myth, a larger-than-life John Henry with two hammers, an 84- 
inch reach, 23 knockouts (in 34 bouts) and 19 arrests'. 59 The 1963 rematch did 
little to change anyone's perceptions. Some objected to Liston because of his 
connections with the mob. Other were more concerned that he was an unsuit- 
able role model for black America at a time when the news was filled with images 
of non-violent freedom marchers being swept away by fire hoses and attacked 
by police dogs. Martin Luther King saluted Patterson for joining the 'bruising 
combat' endured by the protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. 60 After winning 
a fight in 1961, Archie Moore too had announced his support for the Freedom 
Riders: he planned to donate a significant amount of his purse to their cause 
and use the rest to buy a life membership of the naacp. 61 But when a white re- 
porter asked Liston why he had not gone to Birmingham, the boxer replied, 'I 
ain't got no dog-proof ass.' 62 By 1970 Liston was dead, in mysterious circum- 
stances, from an overdose. Joe Louis was a pall-bearer at his funeral. 


In March 1962, A. J. Liebling went to see Cassius Clay, then preparing to fight 
Sonny Banks. Although uncertain about the young man's power, Liebling admit- 
ted that his 'skittering style' was 'good to watch', and that the 'poet' had a certain 
'talent': 'Just when the sweet science appears to lie like a painted ship upon a 
painted ocean, a new Hero, as Pierce Egan would term him, comes along like 
a Moran tug to pull it out of the doldrums.' 63 Around the same time, Clay intro- 
duced himself to Malcolm X at a Nation of Islam rally. 'He acted as if I was sup- 
posed to know who he was', Malcolm recalled, 'So I acted as though I did. Up to 
that moment, though, I had never even heard of him'. 64 

The rise of Cassius Clay, and his transformation into the now legendary figure 
of Muhammad Ali, is well-known and amply documented. The legend begins in 
1954 when the twelve-year-old Cassius fought the boy who had stolen his brand- 
new bicycle. Along came Joe Martin, a policeman whose sideline was teaching 
boxing at a local gym. Persuaded to join, Clay was not obviously talented, but Mar- 
tin recalled that 'the little smart aleck' was 'easily the hardest working kid I ever 
taught'. 65 Six years later, he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. When Clay 
was asked by a Russian reporter to comment on segregation, he answered that 
America, the 'best country in the world', would sort it out. 66 

Clay soon became known as a boxer of rare speed and agility, with a knack 
for skilful combinations of punches. His fondness for extravagant bragging and 


prophesy also singled him out as an entertaining performer. In 1962 Liebling 
dubbed him 'Poet and Pedagogue', and described his habit of reciting while 
doing sit-ups - 'he is probably the only poet in America who can recite this way. 
I would like to see T. S . Eliot try.' 67 Liebling joked about Clay's 'career as a poet' 
from the start, even while acknowledging the commercial value of 'self-adver- 
tising' through rhyme. Perhaps, he joshed, it was wrong to consider the present 
age as 'one of mediocre culture': 'Could Paul Valery have filled the VeT d'Hiv . . . 
or Keats Her Majesty's Theatre?' 68 The joke continued in 1963, when Clay 
released an album I Am the Greatest!, with jacket notes by modernist poet 
Marianne Moore (who compares him to Sir Philip Sidney and describes him 
as a 'master' of alliteration, concision and hyperbole). 69 Moore had already 
written a sonnet with Clay, alternating one line each. He speedily produced 
rhymes while she hesitated with hers until finally he took over and finished 
within a couple of minutes. Describing him as a 'defender of poesie', she entitled 
the poem 'Much Ado About Cassius'. 70 

Whether he was prophesying his opponent's doom in rhyme, posing with 
The Beatles or creating 'pop culture in the ring', American tv audiences found 
Clay 'totally loveable'. 71 A popular good-looking youngster with a clean back- 
ground', the sportswriters enthused; he was not only 'precisely what the stricken 
fight industry needed', but 'the perfect American ambassador to the world'. 72 
In 1972, Budd Schulberg looked back at this time as one of innocence. 'Imagine,' 
he told his readers, 'a time before the Bay of Pigs, before Dallas, before Watts, 
before the attempted Americanization of Indochina, before assassination 
became an annual horror' and so on. 73 Imagine, in other words, a time before 
the fall, before Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. 

In the months leading up to his title fight with Liston, rumours circulated 
about Clay's involvement with the Nation of Islam. He had first attended a Nation 
meeting when he was seventeen, while participating in a Chicago Golden Gloves 
tournament in 1959. With his brother Rudolph, he attended meetings secretly 
for the next three years, believing that if his membership of the organization was 
known he 'wouldn't be allowed to fight for the title.' 74 Until he became champion, 
the Nation's inner circle was equally keen to remain at a distance. Although 
Malcolm X quickly and astutely recognized Ali's potential value for the organiza- 
tion, he and his followers were chastised for 'fool[ing] around with fighters'. 75 

Founded in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam adopted many of the themes and 
practices of early twentieth-century Christian racial uplift - laying great empha- 
sis on thrift, propriety, industry and temperance, but recasting them in terms 
that had only a tangential connection to mainstream Islam. 76 It recruited most 
successfully in prisons and among the poorest communities of black America. 
Despite its anti-white rhetoric, the Nation was less interested in confrontation 
than in persuading American blacks to reject the 'slave' ways of 'the so-called 
Negro' (including the 'filthy temptation' of sport) and to situate themselves in- 
stead within a separate, and international, framework. 77 'Self-determination' 
meant abandoning the goals of integration and establishing independent 


educational, economic and political, as well as religious, structures. 'I know how 
to dodge boobytraps and dogs,' Clay told reporters after the Liston fight, 'I 
dodge them by staying in my own neighbourhood. 78 

Relations between the charismatic Malcolm and the Nation's leader, Elijah 
Muhammad, had been gradually deteriorating when, in December 1963, against 
explicit orders, Malcolm made a scathing remark about the assassination of 
President Kennedy, characterizing his murder as just another case of the 'chick- 
ens coming home to roost'. He was immediately suspended from his public 
speaking position, a punishment that was originally set to expire in 90 days, 
but later became 'indefinite'. 79 Malcolm's decision to visit Clay's Miami train- 
ing camp in January 1964 was a conscious act of defiance. 

As Clay waited to fight Liston, he was given a lot of advice. Sugar Ray Robin- 
son instructed him to think like a matador (as he had done with the Raging 
Bull); Malcolm, meanwhile, suggested that he prepare for 'modern Crusades - 
a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off Telstar 
for the whole world to see what happens!' 'Do you think Allah has brought 
about all this', Malcolm asked, 'intending for you to leave the ring as anything 
but the champion?' 80 Although Liston was the 7-1 favourite, and, as Early points 
out, 'an unusually inappropriate symbol for either Christianity or the West', 
Clay was convinced that he was destined to become champion. 81 And on 24 Feb- 
ruary 1964, he did. 

After the fourth round Clay complained of stinging in his eyes, and it was 
suggested that Liston had put something on his gloves. Then, at the start of the 
seventh round, Liston stayed on his stool, claiming that his shoulder was in- 
jured and that he could not get up. Many suspected a fix, but despite numerous 
investigations, nothing was proven - 'a result,' observes Sammons, 'that can be 
attributed more to a lack of commitment than to the circumstances'. 82 Ali won 
the 1965 rematch easily again - knocking Liston down in the first round with 
what he called an 'anchor punch', a quotation from Jack Johnson via the elderly 
vaudevillian, Stepin Fetchit, now a Muslim and part of his retinue. For most 
fans, however, it was not merely a fix but a 'flaunted fix'. 83 Even the poets com- 
plained when Liston 'sat down / wobbly as a dowager'. Jay Meek quoted the 
bartenders who reputedly announced: 

Next time he's gonna fight some fruit 
from a garbage scow on the Atlantic. 
Out there he can really take a dive. 84 

With Clay champion and 'the most famous Black Muslim in the country', 
the Nation's leaders put their reservations about boxing on hold. The organiza- 
tion had found 'a new star, another powerful drawing card', and, Michael 
Gomez argues, this directly contributed to Malcolm's 'expendability'. 85 After 
the fight, the leadership approached Clay directly, and took the unusual step of 
bestowing on him 'his divine name rather than a simple X'. 86 This was a great 


honour, but it also served to distinguish him from Malcolm and reflected the 
Nation's desire to shift to a less threatening stance'. 87 Ali gave a press conference 
and famously declared himself 'free to be what I want'. 88 In response, Edward 
Lassman, president of the World Boxing Association, chastised him for 'setting 
a very poor example to the youth of the world', while Joe Louis set aside his 
deadpan to predict that the new champion would 'earn the public's hatred'. 
'The way I see it, the Black Muslims want to do just what we have been fighting 
against for a hundred years.' 89 Martin Luther King, however, congratulated Ali 
on his victory. 90 

On 6 March, at Elijah Muhammad's insistence, Ali broke with Malcolm, and 
two days later, Malcolm formally broke with the Nation. 91 Ali's choice of Elijah 
Muhammad over Malcolm was the subject of much debate. Floyd Patterson, for 
example, argued that he was 'trapped', while LeRoi Jones attributed the decision 
to Ali's lack of political sophistication: 'He is still a "homeboy", embracing the 
folksy vector straight out of the hard spiritualism of poor negro aspiration.' 92 

From the start, the noi recognized Ali's potential, and not just in Amer- 
ica. 93 In the spring of 1964, the new champion was sent on a month-long tour 
to Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt, attracting extensive press coverage and consider- 
ably larger crowds than either Elijah Muhammad or Malcolm X had ever done. 94 
While in Ghana, Ali coincided with Malcolm X, but he refused to acknowledge 
his former friend. 95 Malcolm nevertheless continued to associate himself with 
the boxer, mentioning him frequently (and always as Clay) in speeches and 
lectures. The most important was an April 1964 address in Detroit, now famous 
as 'The Ballot or the Bullet', which attacked many of the goals and strategies of 
the Civil Rights Movement. While Martin Luther King had advocated 'meeting 
physical force with soul force' through peaceful demonstration based on prayer 
and song, Malcolm declared himself a 'black Nationalist Freedom fighter' and 
announced that it was 'time to stop singing and start swinging.' 96 'Cassius Clay 
can sing. But singing didn't help him to become the heavyweight champion of 
the world. Swinging helped him become the heavyweight champion.' Later, Mal- 
colm described his quarrel with Elijah Muhammad as resulting from being 'kept 
from doing something' about white racist attacks; the equivalent, he said, of 
being put in the ring with Liston or Clay. 'No, don't tie my hands, unless you're 
going to tie up their hands too.' 97 

Ali's hands (or at least his box office drawing power) had themselves been 
tied up by his change of name and religion. After the 1965 Liston rematch, he 
fought Floyd Patterson who promoted the fight as a 'moral crusade' (the Cross 
vs. the Crescent, part 2) and insisted on talking about 'Clay'. Ali responded by 
dubbing him 'rabbit' and 'white America' and beating him severely. What some 
saw as a 'spectacle of cruelty' lost him further support, although Eldridge 
Cleaver declared the result 'symbolic proof of the victory of the autonomous 
over the subordinate Negro' and declared Ali the first 'free black champion', the 
'black Fidel Castro of boxing'. 98 A useful corrective to the hyperbole of both the 
sportswriters' disgust and Cleaver's allegory is Patterson's own account of 


events. At a press conference before the fight, Ali reputedly interrupted a bout 
of 'screaming and bragging' to whisper, 'You want to make some money, don't 
you Floyd? You want to make lots of money, don't you?' 99 

Seriously in debt, the following year Ali launched a series of 'humpty- 
dumpty fights against humpty-dumpty fighters', most of which took place out- 
side of America. 100 As Malcolm had predicted, the Telstar satellite allowed 'the 
whole world to see' Ali's fights, and they paid well. Most lucrative was a match 
with Henry Cooper (the first world heavyweight title to be held in Britain since 
1908). 'Hundreds of millions were going to see it on their screens in places like 
Tokyo, Bangkok, Dortmund, Mexico City and Beunos Aires,' marvelled Cooper; 
'it was a fantastic thought.' 101 


In 1966 the Pentagon launched Project 100,000 to induct men like Ali who had 
previously been rejected. Although Defence Secretary Robert McNamara claimed 
this was to assist the 'educationally disadvantaged', the Defense Department 
later conceded that the programme was introduced simply because the army 
needed to enlist more men. When his application for conscientious objector 
status on religious grounds was refused, Ali declared that, regardless, he would 
follow the example of Elijah Muhammad who had served a three-year jail sen- 
tence for refusing the draft during the Second World War. 102 'I'm a member of 
the Black Muslims, and we don't go to no wars unless they're declared by Allah 
himself. I don't have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.' 103 In April 1967, 
Ali's title was withdrawn and in June, a Texas jury convicted him of violating the 
Selective Service Laws and awarded the maximum sentence, five years in prison 
and a $10,000 fine. The conviction was finally overturned in 1971. 

These events resonated with both the anti-war and the burgeoning Black 
Power movements, and Ali became a hero for both. In July 1967, just a few days 
after the city erupted in riots, the National Conference on Black Power met in 
Newark. Among many conference resolutions was one to boycott all sponsors 
of television boxing until Ali's title was restored. 'Why', wonders historian Jerry 
Gafio Watts, 'was such an inconsequential issue brought up at a conference for- 
mulating national black priorities?' 104 But while a boxing title may in itself be 
politically inconsequential, and while most black radicals viewed the Nation of 
Islam with some scepticism after Malcolm X left, Ali himself was widely ad- 
mired as a symbol of militancy. The Black Power Movement was less concerned 
with the processes of mainstream politics than in exerting a direct influence in 
schools and universities, the media and the sports industry. If, as Debbie Louis 
has argued, the Movement's success was largely a consequence of its ideolo- 
gical vagueness, Ali's case, which easily served as a rallying point for activists 
with very different agendas, was a gift. 105 

The stripping of Ali's title became one of the pivotal events in what soci- 
ologist/activist Harry Edwards termed 'the revolt of the black athlete'. A generation 


earlier, athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis had simply 
fought for sports to be integrated; now, Edwards argued, black athletes and their 
spokesmen should consider the terms of their inclusion. He questioned the lack 
of black involvement in team captaincy, management and coaching, reflecting on 
what happened to athletes after they retired. 'Participation without power' was 
not enough; black athletes should be leaders and spokesmen . . . rather than 
puppets and dupes'. 106 The revolt reached its apotheosis in the Olympic Project 
for Human Rights, which sought to boycott the 1968 Mexico City games. Once 
again, one of the first demands was that Ali's title be restored. Around this time, 
comparisons between the 'castration' of Ali and Jack Johnson began to be made. 
For Edwards, however, there was a clear difference between the two men. While 
Johnson was a 'classic, tragic loser', he said, Ali was nothing less than 'a god'. 107 

Because of his stand on Vietnam, Ali also became the 'White Liberal Hope' 
of the anti-war movement, a position that was enhanced by his 1968 college 
lecture tour and appearance alongside Dr Spock and H. Rap Brown at the 1967 
Peace Action Council. 108 For ex-champions such as Louis, Tunney and 'slacker' 
Dempsey, the involvement of the heavyweight champion in an anti-war move- 
ment was insupportable. 109 But for anti-war activists, Ali's participation both 
encouraged the conviction that refusing to fight could be more manly than 
going, and challenged the lily-white' image of the New Left. 110 

Ali's 'martyrdom' (rather than, say, 'rebellion') became a common theme in 
New Left discourse; his situation enabling a timely revival of the old story in 
which 'the black male is metaphorically the white man's unconscious 
personified.' 111 Budd Schulberg wrote of Ali's having 'received into his beautiful 
black body' all the 'poisoned arrows' of the decade: 'Wounded by all those 
arrows of our social misfortune, he refused to die.' 112 'When Cassius Clay be- 
came a Muslim,' echoed George Lois, 'he also became a martyr'. Membership 
of a 'counterrevolutionary organisation that basically endorsed ... a bourgeois 
fantasy of regeneration through respectability' had turned Ali into a hero of the 
left; now conversion to Islam made him the perfect model for Christian symbol- 
ism. 113 Lois (who designed covers for Esquire magazine and who had famously 
cast Sonny Liston as Santa Claus) decided that Ali should be photographed as 
Botticini's St Sebastian for the April 1968 cover. At the studio, I showed him a 
postcard of the painting to illustrate the stance,' Lois recalled, 'He studied it 
with enormous concentration. Suddenly he blurted out, "Hey George, this cat's 
a Christian!" . . . Before we could affix any arrows to Ali, he got on the phone 
with . . . Elijah Muhammad.' 114 After Ali had explained the painting 'in excru- 
ciating detail' and Lois had endured a lengthy theological discussion' with the 
Black Muslim leader, the project was given the go-ahead. The cover was later 
reproduced and sold as a protest poster. In 2005 the American Society of Mag- 
azine Editors ranked the image third in the top ten magazine covers of the last 
40 years. 115 

A rather less glossy version of Ali's martyrdom, but one no less informed by 
Christian iconography was Benny Andrews's mixed-media collage The Champion 


(1968) (illus. 111). The boxer is depicted sitting on a corner stool, with a towel 
'made of a piece of rumpled and pigment-stiffened cloth' draped over his head. 116 
His glazed look and mashed-up face (made-up of appropriately rough layers of 
plastic, glue and resin) recalls the classical 'pugilist at rest', but Andrews's cham- 
pion stares back at the viewer. 117 Drawing on Ali's political struggle and the fate 
of Joe Louis, at that time receiving treatment in a Colorado psychiatric hospital, 
the painting, Andrews said, was about 'the strength of the black man, the ability 
to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds'. 118 

The Nation of Islam, unsurprisingly, had no desire to portray Ali as either 
a victim or a martyr. His photograph regularly appeared in Muhammad Speaks 
but always as 'physically strong, pious, and devoted to Elijah Muhammad'. 119 

As disenchantment with the war and opposition to the draft became more 
prevalent, support for Ali also grew. In 1967, the majority of black soldiers felt 
that Ali 'had given up being a man' when he refused to be inducted; by 1970, 69 
per cent approved of his decision. 120 Among white liberals, Ali benefited from 
the fact that the 'intensely brooding, beautiful black rebel' had become the lat- 
est thing in 'radical chic'. 121 Panthers appeared on the Johnny Carson Show, cul- 
tural nationalists sold their novels to Random House, and in November 1969, 
Esquire's cover once again campaigned on Ali's behalf- an assortment of lumi- 
naries (from Dick Cavett to Elizabeth Taylor) pointed a finger at the camera, de- 
manding Ali's 'right to defend his title'. 122 The following month Ali appeared (for 
seven nights) as a militant black leader in the Broadway musical Buck White}' 11 
The highlight was his rendition of Oscar Brown Jr.'s song, 'It's All Over Now, 
Mighty Whitey'. 

In 1970, Ali was granted a boxing licence in Atlanta to fight Jerry Quarry 
(illus. 112). While the Governor of Georgia called for a boycott of the fight and 
some tried to enlist Quarry as a white hope, the audience at the closed-circuit 
television screening at Madison Square Garden cheered Ali's victory. 124 Amer- 
ica was divided and once again the boxing ring provided a space for allegory. In 
March 1971, three months before the Supreme Court overturned his draft-evasion 
conviction, Ali took on champion Joe Frazier in the first of what would become 
a 'heroic trilogy' of fights between the pair. Once again political opposition - 
this time, 'law-abiding pragmatism vs. quixotic ideology' or 'radical chic' vs. 
Agnewian angsf - was expressed in terms of race and style. 125 Ali was Black 
Power's white dancer ('Nureyev') and Frazier, the white man's primitive ('Cal- 
iban'). 126 This, anyway, was the kind of thing that white commentators such as 
Schulberg and Mailer wrote. But Gwendolyn Brooks, doyenne of the Black Arts 
Movement, and author of 'Black Steel', a poem specially commissioned for the 
official fight programme, refused to play the game. 'Black Steel' celebrates the 
'roaring-thing' of both fighters, 'the Uttermost of Warriors in the world', and 
demands only that 'black love survive the Calculated Blaze'. 127 Boxing aficiona- 
dos felt that by fighting Frazier, Ali was finally facing a real test (the Liston fights 
were suspect; the others not really challenging enough), and after fifteen hard- 
contested rounds, they concluded that he was no longer a 'magical untried 


Prince'. 128 Ali's defeat, it seemed, made the story even better. By losing, by get- 
ting hit, yet remaining on his feet until the end of the contest - in other words, 
by resembling La Motta more than Sugar Ray - Ali had shown that he had 
'heart' as well as talent. 129 'He was a man,' Mailer declared. 'He could bear moral 
and physical torture and he could stand.' 130 

In 1973, Frazier lost his title to George Foreman and a few months later he 
was defeated by Ali (by decision) in a $25 million Madison Square Garden re- 
match. The following year, Ali signed to meet Foreman for a title fight in Kin- 
shasa, Zaire (illus. 113). The event was the brainchild of Don King, who 
promoted it as a celebration of black political and economic independence: A 
fight between two Blacks in a Black Nation, organized by Blacks and seen by 
the whole world; that is a victory for Mobutism.' 131 

Again the politics were complicated - King was exploiting black America's 
interest in all things African, but it was not clear that the newly independent 
government of Mobutu, installed with the help of the cia and already an op- 
pressive 'cult of the king', deserved such a boost. King promised Ali and Fore- 
man $5 million each; Mobutu guaranteed the sum out of Zaire's treasury. 132 In 
any case, what King dubbed 'the Rumble in the Jungle' was 'an event impossi- 
bly rich for the imagination'. 133 Ali, the self-proclaimed champion of Pan- 
Africanism, would fight a man who, on winning a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico 
City Olympics, had defied the clenched-fisted Black Power protests by waving 
an American flag and calling for 'United States Power'. 134 Foreman was the most 
powerful heavyweight Ali had encountered since Liston, and it was thought that 
Foreman would win easily. Ali's unexpected victory (mythologized in Norman 
Mailer's The Fight and Leon Gast's When We Were Kings) is famous as his 'most 
cerebral' or trickster-like - by lying back on the ropes and protecting his head 
until Foreman tired himself out, he claimed to have invented a new technique, 
the 'Rope-a-Dope'. 135 In fact, it was a classic defensive strategy and, for Jose Tor- 
res, what was most admirable was Ali's subsequent skill in 'patenting' it as his 
own. 136 In the eighth round, Ali knocked Foreman out. The photograph of the 
knockout has, as Charles Lemert notes, become 'one of the iconic images in all 
of sports': Ali towers above the fallen Foreman, fist cocked, holding back the 
final punch that in being withheld asserted Ali's reserve of prowess and, one 
must add, aesthetic taste.' 137 

Ali's third and final meeting with Frazier took place in 1975 in the Philip- 
pines. Dubbed the 'Thrilla in Manila', it is sometimes cited as the greatest fight 
in boxing history. Although both men were 'dinosaurs', the fight went fourteen 
rounds until finally Frazier was unable to continue. 138 Ali later described the 
fight as the 'hardest' of his life, the 'deadliest and most vicious', and the tenth 
round as the 'closest thing to dying I know'. 139 For Joyce Carol Oates, Ali-Frazier 
1 . . . and Ali-Frazier 111 . . . are boxing's analogues to King Lear- ordeals of un- 
fathomable human courage and resilience raised to the level of classic 
tragedy'. 140 Aired live to paying subscribers via satellite by hbo, the Manila fight 
was also the 'breakthrough event' that launched the cable industry. 141 


Ali continued to fight for another six years. In 1978, he lost and then re- 
gained his title for the third time in two fights with Leon Spinks. 142 Retiring in 
1979, he returned in 1980 to be carried through eleven rounds by Larry Holmes 
(it was, said Sylvester Stallone, like watching an autopsy on a man who's still 
alive'). 143 When, the following year, Ali fought Trevor Berbick, a tremor (later di- 
agnosed as Parkinson's Syndrome) was already noticeable. 


In 1975, in the wake of the Rumble, Ali published his autobiography, The Great- 
est: My Own Story. Although the jacket credits Ali 'with Richard Durham', the 
book's authorship is more complicated. The managing editor of the Nation of 
Islam's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, but a Marxist rather than a Muslim, 
Durham taped Ali's conversations with a variety of people, and sent the tapes 
to Random House. Toni Morrison, a senior editor there, used the tapes to con- 
struct a book. Finally Herbert Muhammad approved the text, which is full of 
praise for his role as Ali's 'other self'. 144 A 'self-consciously political construct' 
- one in which, for example, Malcolm X is written out except for a mention of 
the threat posed by his 'people' - The Greatest is still often treated as the defini- 
tive account of Ali's life. 145 

The book begins in 1973, with Ali returning to Louisville after his defeat by 
Ken Norton, and ends with his victories against Foreman in Kinshasa and 
Frazier in Manila - a structure which Gerald Early reads as representing more 
than simply an upward trajectory. For Early, the book is a version of 'Odysseus 
returning home from the black male exile'. 146 When Ali overhears someone say- 
ing 'Norton beat that nigger!', the book's theme is introduced: the racism of 
'White America' is what motivates Ali. 'Only this morning,' he notes, 'Norton 
was a "nigger" like me. But tonight he's The Great White Hope'. The story of 
Jack Johnson (the 'ghost in the house') is evoked throughout. 147 

The Greatest treats boxing as at best a suspect activity (a recurrent 'nightmar- 
ish image' is of 'two slaves in the ring' before their masters) and focuses on Ali's 
experience as a 'freedom fighter' in the 'real fighting ring, the one where freedom 
for black people in America takes place'. 148 At the heart of the story is Ali's reli- 
gious conversion and refusal of the draft; what the narrative needs to do is 
explain how Ali came to make these decisions. Two incidents in particular are 
singled out as shaping the development of his political consciousness. The first 
is the story of his reaction to the 1955 lynching of the fourteen-year-old Emmett 
Till. A close-up of Till's battered face had appeared in Jet magazine and Ali 
describes the effect of seeing 'his head . . . swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging 
out of their sockets, and his mouth twisted and broken'. 

I felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year 
and day I was. I couldn't get Emmett Till out of my mind, until one 
evening I thought of a way to get back at white people for his death. 149 


In the story that follows, Ali and his friend, Ronnie, walked to the railway sta- 
tion where they saw a poster of Uncle Sam. After hurling stones at the poster, 
they place some shoe rests on the track and later watch as a train is derailed. 
Two days later, Ali returns to the scene and looks again at the image. He con- 
cludes the story, 'I always knew that sooner or later he would confront me, and 
I would confront him.' 150 

The next key story concerns Ali's brief 'holiday as a White Hope' following 
the i960 Olympics. Ali describes himself as immediately wary of the role that 
was being thrust upon him: 'Of course I understood they would prefer that the 
White Hope be white. But, Hopes having come upon hard times in boxing, I 
could see they would settle for a Black White Hope . . . until a real White White 
Hope came around.' 151 Disillusion comes quickly. Back in Louisville, while wear- 
ing his medal, he is refused entry to a Louisville restaurant. In disgusted re- 
sponse, and 'feeling tight and warm as though the bell had rung for the round,' 
Ali says he threw his medal in the Ohio river. 152 By 1967, Ali is firmly established 
as both the '"Jack Johnson" of [his] time', and a Pan-African statesman. 153 

Like Alex Haley's Roots, the bestselling book of 1976, The Greatest presents 
the story of a powerful black man who survives hardship to come good in Amer- 
ica but never forgets his African origins. Both Ali and Haley use slavery as a 
metaphor for the experience of American blacks long after Emancipation, both 
confess that, prior to visiting the continent, their knowledge of Africa was de- 
rived from 'Tarzan movies', and both experience their return as a 'peak experi- 
ence'. 154 In his review of Roots, considering the passage in which the baby Kunta 
Kinte is told his name, James Baldwin reinforced the connection. 'Even way up 
here in the 20th century,' he wrote, 'Muhammad Ali will not be the only one to 
respond to the moment that the father lifted his baby up with his face to the 
heavens, and said softly, "Behold - the only thing greater than yourself".' 155 

For all The Greatest's talk of Ali's estrangement from white America, white 
America was appreciating and buying into Ali like never before. Ronald Bergan 
describes the 1977 film adaptation (featuring Ali as his 22-year-old self, James 
Earl Jones as Malcolm X, and George Benson singing 'The Greatest Love of AH') 
as 'rather like an extended commercial advertising a renowned and well-loved 
product'. 156 Ali's commercial potential was also apparent to the master of pop 
iconography, Andy Warhol. In August 1977, Warhol visited Ali's training camp 
in order to photograph him for a series often silk-screen portraits of athletes 
(illus. 114). Victor Bockris recorded the event and quoted Ali's delight that 'white 
people gonna pay $25,000 for my picture!' 157 Warhol found Ali boring but very 
handsome. 158 For Mike Marquesee, Warhol's portrait marks 'the moment of 
symbolic appropriation, the transition of Ali from a divisive to a consensual 
figure'. 159 By the time Ali lit the torch to open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 
(accompanied by loudspeakers broadcasting Martin Luther King's T have a 
dream' speech), the transformation was complete. During the games he was 
given a replacement gold medal to replace the one he'd purportedly thrown into 
the Ohio River. 160 When We Were Kings, a film of the 1974 'Rumble', was released 


later that year, followed by Michael Mann's bio-pic, Ali, starring Will Smith, in 
2001. In 1999, bbc viewers awarded Ali 'Sports Personality of the Century', and 
in 2001 Sports Illustrated noted that Ali commanded $100,000 (more than any 
other retired athlete) for a single public appearance. 161 

Marquesee argues that the 'Ali offered up for veneration in the 1990s' is a 
'mere caricature of the original', a postmodern pastiche stripped of all political 
meaning. 162 But Ali's protean political usefulness never really ended. The sub- 
ject of illegal fbi surveillance for a decade, in 1975 Ali accepted an invitation to 
the White House as part of Gerald Ford's attempt to 'heal the wounds of racial 
division, Vietnam and Watergate'. 163 In 1976, he campaigned for Jimmy Carter, 
who sent him to Africa to gather support for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. 
On a visit to the ussr in 1978, Ali described America as the 'best country in the 
world' (the exact phrase he'd used in i960): it was almost as if the past eighteen 
years hadn't happened. 164 In 1980, he supported Ronald Reagan's presidential 
campaign and in 1990, flew to Iraq to try to secure the release of the American 
hostages held by Saddam Hussein. 

The shift in Ali's political positioning was connected to changes in his reli- 
gious affiliation. After Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, the Nation of Islam 
split. Ali chose to remain with Wallace D. Muhammad, who reinvented the 
organization along more orthodox Islamic lines, renaming it the American Mus- 
lim Mission, rather than following Louis Farrakhan who revived the old-style 
Nation. After the World Trade Center attack in 2001, Ali appeared on national 
television as the 'exemplary African-American Muslim' and declared that 'Islam 
is peace. It's against killing, murder and the terrorists and the people who are 
doing that in the name of Islam are wrong. And if I had a chance I'd do some- 
thing about it.' 165 In December 2001 he made a short film designed to persuade 
America's Muslims to support the war effort and the following year visited 
Kabul. 166 He was awarded the Presidential Medal by George W. Bush in 2005. 

Ali has also become a kind of New Age spiritual guru; his Parkinson's Syn- 
drome merely adding poignancy to his story. God, he claimed, was keeping him 
'humble' and showing him that 'I'm just a man, like everybody else.' 167 Recent 
years have seen the publication of books on Ali's life lessons' by his daughters 
Hana and Laila, as well as Ali himself. 168 He is also frequently evoked in inspi- 
rational books aimed at young people, and features in the memoirs of those 
who claim to have been inspired by his example (illus. 115). l69 

Memoirs form the basis of Leon Gast's 1996 film When We Were Kings. The 
soundtrack features Wyclef Jean's 'Rumble in the Jungle', a song which follows 
the nationalist argument of The Greatest, to suggest that the fight represents an 
attempt 'to reconnect 400 years' and that the film is a way to 'give love . . . / To 
the man who made the fam' remember when we were kings'. Wyclef ends by 
connecting the past to the present moment in which 'we need a ghetto Mes- 
siah'. The film itself, however, is purely nostalgic. While Foreman and Ali appear 
in the 1974 footage, we don't learn what they remember of the fight (or, indeed, 
what any Zairians thought of the occasion). 170 Instead, Gast intercuts scenes 



'Ali, Now and Then'; 
cover of Esquire, 
October 2003. 

from the fight and its buildup with the recollections and primitivist interpreta- 
tions of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. 171 As Julio Rodriguez points out, 
this means that the 'we' of the title mostly refers to the old sportswriters and, by 
extension, Gast whose cinematography, he suggests, is as lustful' as Mailer's 
talk. 172 The film was advertised by a poster featuring a close-up of Ali's sweat- 
drenched face; his lips are slightly open and his eyes narrowed in concentration 
(illus. 116). The image suggests that Ali has transcended his previous movie per- 
sonae, both that of boxer and that of political symbol, and become a work of 
primitivist art (illus. 117). 

Ali also remains a promising resource for academic discussion. For cultural 
critics such as Grant Farred, he is more than a 'cultural icon', he is a 'vernacular 
intellectual'; someone whose 'physical actions . . . are indistinguishable from 
his cerebral contemplations' and who, by changing his name, 'narrativizes him- 
self as postcolonial figure'. 173 Farred has high standards for Ali and suggests, for 
example, that by fighting in Jakarta without 'speaking out against the Indone- 
sian genocide,' the boxer 'compromised himself ideologically'. 174 Ali's self-con- 
fessed prettiness has also been the subject of much speculation. On the simplest 
reading, when Ali announced, 'I am the prettiest thing that ever lived', he was 
simply making the classic boxer's boast of avoiding his opponent's gloves - 'I 
don't have a mark on my face'. 175 Ishmael Reed, however, worried that 'when 

he refers to himself as "pretty" he might 
mean his Caucasian features' - a thesis 
that was supported by Ali's habit of den- 
igrating his opponents with racial in- 
sults. 176 More recently, Ali's prettiness 
has been read as a sign of late twentieth- 
century 're-gendering' or 'cross-gendered 
wholeness'. 177 

As the new century began, Ali and his 
managers consolidated the 'brand' in a 
series of new ventures (illus. 145). In 2004, 
Taschen Books published a limited edition 
'tribute' to Ali entitled g.o.a.t. - the 
acronym of 'Greatest of All Time'. The vol- 
ume exemplified excess in every respect - 
twenty inches squared, it numbered 800 
pages, weighed 75 pounds, and retailed 
at $3,000. The first 1,000 copies (the 
'Champ's Edition' at $7,500) contained 
four silver gelatin prints by Howard Bing- 
ham and a self-assembly plastic sculpture 
by the master of kitsch consumerism, Jeff 
Koons. The following year, the Muhum- 
mad Ali Center, an interactive 'museum, 



peace, and conflict resolution center', assumed a central role in the regeneration 
of the still segregated city of Louisville and in April 2006, Ali sold 80 per cent of 
the marketing rights to his name and image to the entertainment rights firm ckx 
for $50 million. 178 A statement purportedly from Ali announced that the move 
will 'help guarantee that, for generations to come, people of all nations will un- 
derstand my beliefs and purpose'. 179 In June, his corporation took advantage of 
the latest moral panic (childhood obesity) to launch g.o.a.t. snacks, shaped like 
punch bags and boxing gloves, and meant to be eaten in seven 'rounds' through- 
out the day. 180 

Ali has always been very astute about his ability to appeal to diverse con- 
stituents - to pretty girls 'because I say things that attract them'; to 'redneck white 
folks' who want to see 'the nigger' get 'a whoppin'; to 'black militants that don't like 
the whites'; to long-haired hippies, because I don't go to war'; to Muslims 'be- 
cause of the name Muhammad Ali' and, finally, to 'the Israelis, who don't get along 
with the Muslims'. 'So you add it all up,' he once said, 'I got a helluva crowd.' 181 

In the remainder of this chapter, I look in greater detail at the appeal and 
challenge of Ali's celebrity for some of that crowd - first the Black Arts Move- 
ment; then Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer. Finally, I consider three 'white hope' 
tales: Rocky, Raging Bull and the comic book, Superman vs Muhammad Ali. 

'say it loud - i'm black and i'm proud' 

Drawing variously on aesthetic, entrepreneurial, religious and therapeutic dis- 
courses, the aims and ambitions of late sixties and early seventies black cultural 
nationalism were constantly being debated and reformulated. At times it 
seemed that what unified its various agendas was simply blackness and, as 
Amiri Baraka later said, 'that meant many things to many people'. 182 Neverthe- 
less, three dominant themes emerged: self-determination, pride and masculin- 
ity. 183 'Black is beautiful and it's so beautiful to be black', read the student 
placards; 'say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud', sang one-time boxer James 
Brown; 'I am the greatest,' declared Muhammad Ali; 'We're the Greatest,' 
echoed the Alabama Black Panthers' bumper stickers. 184 These assertions were 
backed up by what Vincent Harding remembers as an extraordinary burst of 
cultural activity. 

Conventions and conferences on Black history, music, art, politics and 
religion were meeting almost weekly. New journals, new institutions, 
new African and Islamic names seemed to rise up continuously in a pe- 
riod of tremendous Black energy and creative force. It was a time of 
renaissance far more powerful than the celebrated period of Harlem's 
rise in the 1920s. 185 

Essential for many of these activities was the recovery of 'cultural roots', which 
were largely conceived in terms of the example provided by individual achieve- 


ment. 186 When Sonia Sanchez asked, 'who's gonna give our young / blk people 
new heroes,' there was no shortage of offers. 187 'Rip those dead white people off 
/ your walls,' instructed another poet, Jayne Cortez, and in their place, she 
urged, erect 'A Black Hall of Fame / so our children will know / will know and 
be proud'. 188 While the most popular subject was undoubtedly Malcolm him- 
self, 'the epic hero of our struggle', heroes were found far and wide - in tradi- 
tional folklore (Railroad Bill, Shine), black history (Nat Turner, Frederick 
Douglass), contemporary popular culture (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and 
James Brown) and sports (Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson). 189 Ali may have 
chosen Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm X, but it is Malcolm beside whom he 
is commemorated in literary, musical and visual Halls of Fame. 

The representation of heroes was the driving force behind much activity in 
the visual arts. In 1967 the Organization of Black American Culture (obac), in- 
tent on producing an art work that would be in, as well as of, the community, 
created the 'Wall of Respect' on an abandoned building in inner-city Chicago. 
Influenced by the heroic murals of Aaron Douglas, as well as the Mexican and 
wpa traditions, the Wall was intended 'to inspire the South Side black commu- 
nity with faces of black success, creative genius, and resistance' - faces that in- 
cluded Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, John Coltrane, Nina Simone and, standing 
victorious in the centre of a bay window, Muhammad Ali. 190 After the mural 
was featured in Ebony magazine, further walls of respect, as well as 'truth', 'con- 
sciousness' and 'dignity', were produced all over the country, creating numer- 
ous 'Black Museum[s] in the inner city'. 191 Today 'motivational' murals featuring 
Ali and others remain a frequent sight on the walls of schools and youth centres 
all over the United States. In 1993, for example, Elliott Pinkney (with the assis- 
tance of Sam Barrow and Lloyd Goodney) created Visions and Motions for the 
Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation in Los Angeles (illus. 118). 
Designed 'to encourage young people', it 'depicts men and women who had 
visions to become great and then set about setting those dreams in motion'. 192 
One of those men is Muhammad Ali. 

Jack Johnson also became a popular subject for commemoration. 193 After 
1966, parallels began to be drawn between Ali's refusal of the draft and subse- 
quent ban from boxing, and Johnson's 1910 conviction under the Mann Act. Jack 
Johnson seemed 'tailor made' for a 'generation looking for forceful, independ- 
ent leaders'. 194 But although Ali asserted that his exile from boxing was 'history 
all over again', different political and social issues were at play. 195 Johnson was 
considered dangerous because he challenged the caste system in and out of the 
ring. White women and white hopes were largely irrelevant to Ali's career, 
except as a way of making money; he espoused racial separatism. It seemed, how- 
ever, that if Ali was not going to be a Joe Louis, then he had to be a Jack Johnson, 
as if these were the only possibilities. Johnson was represented in many different 
ways by both black and white artists. The Young Jack Johnson (1967), one of sev- 
eral 'hero portraits' by Reginald Gammon, draws on an often-reproduced photo- 
graph of Johnson standing with folded arms and staring directly at the camera. 


Gammon's painting emphasizes the boxer's musculature and challenging look, 
and surrounds him with bands of red, black and green, the Black Nationalist 
colours. 196 Raymond Saunders's series of mixed media portraits of Johnson took 
a very different approach. Saunders disrupts the figurative representation of 
Johnson by overlaying it with Abstract Expressionist paintwork and a collage of 
tickets and other documents. Saunders was very critical of the Black Art Move- 
ment and, in a privately printed pamphlet, Black is a Color (1969), argued against 
an aesthetic based on 'perpetual anger'. 'For the artist,' he said, 'this is aesthetic 
atrophy'. 197 Nevertheless, it is hard not to see political intent in Saunders's choice 
of Johnson as a subject and in his mode of representation. In one painting, John- 
son's head is cropped and his arms obscured by red paint. The painting is dom- 
inated by his white-trousered legs with his crotch as its focal point. 198 

In 1967 Howard Sackler wrote a play, The Great White Hope, closely based on 
Johnson's newly reissued autobiography. James Earl Jones, who played Jefferson 
(the Johnson character), claimed that his performance was partly based on 
observations of Ali, and when he stepped down from the role, it was suggested 
that Ali himself could take over. 199 Although he needed work and said he loved 
the 'Jack Johnson image', Ali refused the part. 200 He may have emulated the role 
of 'the nigger white folks didn't like', but, he 
added, 'a black hero chasing white women 
was a role I didn't want to glorify'. 201 Keen 
to appeal to the increasingly lucrative 
young black audience, Twentieth Century 
Fox decided to film the play and gave it a 
comparatively large budget. 202 The release 
of The Great White Hope coincided with 
Ali's return to the ring, and, as publicity for 
both, he was happy to spar with Jones for 
photographers. 'If you just change the time, 
date and details, it's about me!' he said. 203 
The film, however, was unpopular with 
both blacks and whites. Blacks disliked 
the 'glorification of a black man's love of 
a white woman' and the fact that more 
time was spent considering Johnson's 
final defeat than his victory over Jeffries 
(dealt with rapidly in close-ups of Jones 
laughing and punching). White audi- 
ences, meanwhile, resented the film's 'all- 
purpose accusation and rhetoric' and 
'guilt-mongering advertising campaign': 
the posters read, 'He could beat any white 
man in the world. He just couldn't beat all 
ofthem!'(illus.i46). 2 ° 4 


Poster advertising 
The Great White 
Hope (1970). 

He could beat any white man 

in the world- 
He just couldn't beat alt of them. 

The Great White Hope 

Slarriiljj jjrriH*. Earl Jpnes. Jhiih Alys^nciHr 

todmd by Lnmm furwi Duteua by Mwm (tin 
Suwwuin ty HowjkI SkLIp ijjri «i hd put 

JViultJ ■■< ■**, *W* 1 


The following year, a feature-length documentary Jack Johnson, directed by 
Jim Jacobs and produced by William Cayton, was shown at the Whitney Mu- 
seum. 205 Today the film, which presents Johnson as a prototype Black Power 
activist, is largely remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack. Davis's score 
makes no attempt to be historical; rather, he marries his jazz horn with the rock 
influences of electric bass and guitar. 206 Davis felt the score fitted the movie 
'perfectly' - his aim, he said later, was to make music that Jack Johnson could 
have danced to, music that had a 'black rhythm', that was 'black enough'. 207 
Davis had been a keen amateur boxer since his youth, and had idolized Sugar 
Ray Robinson. 208 The black subcultures of boxing and jazz had traditionally 
overlapped, and while musicians tapped in to the masculine mythology of the 
prize-fighter, boxers wanted to be thought of as stylish and artful. 209 Percus- 
sion and dancing skills, both of which required a sense of rhythm and timing, 
were particularly transferable to the ring. 210 Sugar Ray had begun as a tap 
dancer, imitating Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson; later he played drums with his friend 
Max Roach. 211 While both activities depended on constant practice until they 
became 'instinctive', as well as 'science and precision', what makes a great boxer, 
Davis maintained, is the same thing that makes a great musician - a distinctive 
style. While working on Jack Johnson, Davis was sparring regularly and he 
claimed to have written the piece with 'that shuffling movement boxers use' in 
mind. 212 But Johnson's influence was more than stylistic. In his sleevenotes for 
the 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Davis said that 'Johnson portrayed Free- 
dom' - 'His flamboyance was more than obvious. And no doubt mighty Whitey 
felt "No Black man should have all this." But he did and he'd flaunt it.' 213 Davis 
wanted his album to be seen as a comparable gesture of stylish masculine flam- 
boyance, a reproof to 'white envy'. 214 

The comparison of Ali to Johnson was often situated in the context of dis- 
cussions about the relationship between the Black Arts Movement and the 
Harlem Renaissance. For Ishmael Reed, for example, the 'glamorous, sophisti- 
cated, intelligent, international, and militant' Ali not only represented the 'New 
Black of the 1960s', but was an obvious successor to the 'New Negro of the 
1920s'. 215 The status of Ali in the Black Arts Movement was, however, just as 
complicated as that of Jack Johnson in the Harlem Renaissance 40 years earlier. 
In the twenties, debates focused on whether Johnson was a suitable role model 
for the aspirant middle classes. Was the heavyweight championship the best 
'measurement' of black progress? asked James Weldon Johnson. Would an in- 
terest in sport distract blacks from the importance of education? wondered 
W.E.B. Du Bois. In Chapter Five, I argued that one way to reconcile the celebra- 
tion of a sports hero with a belief in the importance of artistic achievement was 
to consider boxing as itself an art form or analogous to art. In the late sixties, de- 
bates about Ali's suitability as a role model had a slightly different emphasis. The 
rhetoric of Black Power tended to associate proper blackness with proper mas- 
culinity. 216 There was much talk of 'emasculation' and 'eunuchs', while numer- 
ous works debated the 'price of being a black man in America', and the nature 


of 'black masculinity', which was defined in essentialist terms. 217 'The question 
for the black critic today,' declared LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal in 1968, is 'how 
far has the work gone in transforming an American Negro into an African- 
American or black man?' 218 

One way of considering this question (and its possible answers) is to read 
it as emerging from the debates that followed the American publication of Franz 
Fanon's work. Fanon's books provided a framework within which many intellec- 
tuals and activists located the condition and consciousness of black American 
men (again women are largely ignored). It became commonplace to speak of 
Black America as an internal colony and its literature as 'a literature of com- 
bat'. 219 In Black Skin, White Masks (first published in English in 1968) Fanon 
considered 'the singularly eroticised' body of the black athlete as an example 
of the association of 'the Negro' with 'the biological'. In a word-association test 
conducted on 'some 500 members of the white race - French, German, English, 
Italian', he inserted the word 'Negro': 'Negro brought forth biology, penis, 
strong, athletic, potent, boxer, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Senegalese troops, savage, 
animal, devil, sin.' 220 But Fanon wanted to do more than simply expose white 
stereotyping; he wanted black men to think about themselves differently. In 
order to be truly free, he argued, they must actively resist being locked into' 
their bodies. 221 These themes were elaborated in Eldridge Cleaver's 1968 essay 
Allegory of the Black Eunuchs', an extended complaint that 'the white man 
wants to be the brain and he wants us to be the muscle, the body'. 222 

As reigning heavyweight champion, Ali was, of course, the ultimate per- 
former of a 'slave sport', the ultimate representative of the 'singularly eroticised' 
Body, the biological essence. 'The Heavyweight Champion of the World is, most 
of all, a grand hunk of flesh,' wrote Ishmael Reed, 'capable of devastating phys- 
ical destruction when instructed by a brain, or a group of brains. He may be 
brilliant, but even his brilliance is used to praise his flesh.' 223 Writers such as 
Cleaver did not, however, want to forego the male body. If racism had 'negated 
masculinity' by separating brain and body, Black Power must bring them to- 
gether again. It was just a question of emphasis. While whites such as Norman 
Mailer celebrated Ali's athleticism and laughed at his poetry and philosophy, 
Cleaver and LeRoi Jones took Ali's excellence as a boxer largely for granted and 
concentrated on his out-of-ring activities: first, as loud-mouthed Clay because, 
after all, it takes at least a bird-brain to run a loud-mouth, and the white man de- 
spises even that much brain in a black man', and then, even better, as Ali, the 
man-of-principle who sacrificed his considerable physical assets for his be- 
liefs. 224 Of course, the loud-mouth-become-political icon would scarcely have 
been worth celebrating if he did not also remain beyond doubt the incarnation 
of masculinity. Side-stepping Ali's profession was made much easier by the fact 
that between 1967 and 1970 - the height of the Black Power Movement - he was 
not boxing at all. 

In his 1962 address to the American Society for African Culture, LeRoi 
Jones argued that America had not yet produced a legitimate Negro art', with 


the result that Jack Johnson remained a 'larger cultural hero than any Negro 
writer'. Boxing (or more precisely, the symbolism of Johnson's career) and 
music assumed a 'legitimacy of emotional concern' that literature had been 
unable to achieve. 225 This legitimacy, or authenticity, was the one thing that 
white culture could not steal. White blues singers may sing the same words 
as their black counterparts but, Jones maintained, the songs were not the 
same. 'It is a different quality of energy they summon. The body is directly 
figured in it.' Similarly, he went on, 'a white man could box like Muhammad 
Ali, only after seeing Muhammad Ali box. He could not initiate that style. 
It is no description, it is the culture.' 226 The white appropriation of black 
style was a much-discussed subject. 227 Ishmael Reed wrote extensively about 
the way in which American art depended on 'a secret understanding that 
the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter 
how inferior his art to that of his victims'. 228 For the black artist to survive, 
Reed argued, he must emulate such 'conjure men' as Railroad Bill, Nat 
Turner, Malcolm X and Jack Johnson, all of whom resisted attempts to steal 
their magic. 229 

LeRoi Jones also alluded to Johnson and Ali in his attempts to create a lit- 
erature that, he said, would reflect the 'singular values' (often conceived in emo- 
tional or bodily terms) of black life. His 1964 poem, 'Black Dada Nihilismus', for 
example, is an attempt to create an aesthetic based on medieval alchemy, Egypt- 
ian astrology and the exorcising 'black scream', as well as a tribute to a series of 
exemplary rebels and entertainers who include Johnson. 230 Three years later, 
Jones prefaced a short story about space invaders searching for jazz records in 
Newark with the following poem: 

Can you die in airraid jiggle 

torn arms flung through candystores 

Touch the edge of an answer. The waves of nausea 

as change sweeps the frame of breath and meat. 

'Stick a knife through his throat,' 
he slid 
in the blood 
got up running toward 
the blind newsdealer. He screamed 
about 'Cassius Clay', and slain there in the 
street, the whipped figure of jesus, head opened 
eyes flailing against his nose. They beat him to 
pulpy answers. We wrote Muhammad Ali across his 
face and chest, like a newspaper of bleeding meat. 231 

The narrator of the poem seems uncertain about his position is relation to the 
violent attack. The mob is both a 'they', who beat the man to a paper-like pulp, 


and a 'we' whose number includes a 'newsdealer' and who transform the pulp 
into a 'newspaper of bleeding meat'. We don't know anything about the victim 
of the mob other than the fact that he screams the name Cassius Clay and, to the 
ambivalent narrator, becomes a Christ-like martyr. But that, it seems, is all we 
need to know. The 'news' that needs to be conveyed is that Clay is now Ali. That 
shift (mirrored the following year when Jones changed his name to Amiri 
Baraka) is of course the shift from the rhetoric of Civil Rights to that of Black 
Power; from 'We Shall Overcome' to 'Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!' 232 
In aesthetic terms, this move meant rejecting a poetry of reflection and ana- 
lysis for one of immediacy and direct expression: 'reflect never did shit for any 
of us. Express would. Express. Now Now Now Now Now Now.' 233 But there was, 
however, only so far that an aesthetic based on the 'Black scream' could go, and 
by the late sixties, in works such as 'It's Nation Time' or Black Fire, an enor- 
mously influential anthology that he edited with Larry Neal, Baraka returned to 
his earlier emphasis on cultural nationalism. 234 

Neal's introduction to Black Fire argued that the Black Arts Movement must 
learn from the mistakes of the Harlem Renaissance which, he said, had failed to 
'address itself to the mythology and the life-styles of the black community' and 
had not spoken 'directly to black people'. 235 By 1970, Neal had begun to evoke 
Ralph Ellison as an alternative model; Ellison's work displayed a complex appre- 
ciation of 'the aesthetic all around . . . preachers, blues singers, hustlers, gam- 
blers, jazzmen, boxers, dancers, and itinerant storytellers'. It was not enough, 
Neal maintained, simply to name heroes; black literature must recognize the 
diverse sources of its strengths and singularity - in boxing, music, politics and 
religion. There was no need to invent a new black aesthetic; one simply had to 
locate it. 236 

Ostensibly an essay on the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, 'Uncle Rufus Raps on the 
Square Circle' is Neal's masterclass on the black aesthetic. 237 Its epigraph is the 
prize-fighter versus yokel passage from Invisible Man, and its barroom setting 
alludes to the Golden Day scene in Ellison's novel. Uncle Rufus suggests Uncle 
Remus, and there are also mentions of minstrel shows, Jelly Roll Morton, and 
Melvin B. Tolson's epic poem, Harlem Gallery. The story-cum-essay's most 
important models, however, are the barber shop and barroom debates of Ollie 
Harrington's Bootsie comic strip and Langston Hughes's Simple stories - both 
of which were syndicated in black newspapers. 238 Set in a Harlem bar, Hughes's 
stories generally featured a conversation between the middle-class narrator, 
Boyd, and Jesse B . Semple or Simple, a working-class 'race man', on topics rang- 
ing from politics and history to music and sport. 239 Introduced as a boxer- 
turned-minstrel-performer, and a friend of 'the real John Henry', Uncle Rufus is 
the embodiment of black culture and history, the conscience of his race. 
Although Larry, the narrator, just wants to talk about Ali-Frazier, Uncle Rufus 
takes him through the history of black boxing - from Molineaux to Johnson to 
Battling Siki to Joe Louis - all of whose fights he seems to have witnessed. 'I once 
saw two slaves beat each other to death,' he says. At this point (two pages into 


the story), the naturalistic conversation is interrupted by an italicized para- 
graph (in the style of Invisible Man) in which a first person narrator describes the 
fight - 7 am inside of a bull of a man named Silas'. 240 Rufus then carries on as if 
this scene has been spoken aloud, 'You got the right idea son.' Larry has begun 
to learn something about his history; in Ellison's terms, has 'stepped inside of 
his opponent's sense of time.' Rufus then moves on to consider boxing and 
music as comparable expressions of 'rhythmic style', and compares Ali to riffing 
'body bebop' and Frazier to slow 'stomp-down blues'; in other words, a reformu- 
lation of the prize-fighter and the yokel. 241 In suggesting the varieties of black 
styles, Neal provides a corrective to the seemingly inevitable translation of every 
stylistic contest between blacks (from Liston vs. Patterson to Ali vs. Frazier) into 
one between black and faux white. For someone like Mailer (or indeed Jones or 
Cleaver), there only ever seems to be one legitimate black style, one legitimate 
black winner. Rufus's final lesson for Larry, and one that requires a full under- 
standing of black history and culture, is that it is possible to celebrate very 
different styles. 

Celebrating his boxing style, Neal does not extend his analysis to Ali's other 
contributions to black popular culture (illus. 147). Others, however, were eager 
to claim him as a 'modern mass communication comedian' in the tradition of 
Langston Hughes, and to argue, further, that being a 'good black poet in the '60s', 
meant capturing his 'rhythms ... on the page'. 242 The late 1960s and '70s saw a 
proliferation of studies defining the 'specific rhetorical devices and linguistic pat- 
terns inherent in Black verbal style', and the ways in which they informed the 


Ali, Float Like a 
Butterfly, Sting Like 
a Bee, c. 1979. 


new black poetry. 243 Particular attention was paid to 'Black verbal rituals', such 
as the dozens, toast, signification, and call-and-response. Most relevant to a con- 
sideration of Ali is the rhyming, boasting narrative tale known as the toast (what 
Kimberley Benston and Henry Louis Gates later punned as 'trope-a-dope'). 244 
The 'overriding theme' of the toast, argued Geneva Smitherman, was 'the om- 
nipotence of Black folks as symbolized in the lone figure of the black hero. Full 
of braggadocio, [the Toast-Teller] is always talkin bout how bad he bees, and his 
boasting consumes a good portion of the Toast's content.' 245 

Since Homer's Epeios declared himself the greatest, fighting and boasting 
have always gone together, and in 1934 Zora Neale Hurston identified both as 
fundamental 'Characteristics of Negro Expression'. 246 'Threats', Hurston main- 
tained, are integral to fighting, and 'a great threatener must certainly be con- 
sidered an aid to the fighting machine'. 247 Ali's every fight was aided by threats 
(he preferred to call them predictions), and hyperbolic boasts. His first 'cam- 
paign poem' (and in 1975 still his favourite) begins, 'It started twenty years 
past. /The greatest of them all was born at last.' The imagery of 'Feats of Clay' 
is predictable ('I'm strong as an ox and twice as tough'), but Ali was soon to 
invent narratives, metaphors and boasts which do not look out of place 
alongside the work of Black Arts poets. 248 Compare, for example, Ali on stage 
in 1964, 

I am so modest I can admit my own fault. 

My only fault is I don't realise how great I really am. 

with Nikki Giovanni's 'Ego Tripping', published in 1970: 

I am so hip even my errors are correct. 

I cannot be comprehended except by my permission. 249 

Or, consider these two dream visions: 

Last night I had a dream. When I got to Africa, I had one hell of a rum- 
ble. I had to beat Tarzan's behind first for claiming to be King of the 
Jungle. I done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an al- 
ligator. That's right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled 
with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. 
That's bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospi- 
talised a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick! 

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles 
of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they 
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a 
sucker for the right cross. 250 


The first is Ali-as-Davy-Crockett, speaking to the press before fighting Foreman 
in 1974; the second, a verse of Ishamel Reed's often-anthologized poem 'I am a 
Cowboy in the Boat of Ra', a modernist interweaving of Egyptian, Christian and 
West African mythology narrated by a shape-shifting narrator (cowboy-cum- 
jazz-musician-cum-boxer). 251 

What Reed admired about Ali's verse was the way in which, like Reed him- 
self, he supplemented the standard folk repertoire with characters drawn from 
television and comic books. 252 Ali was particularly keen on space imagery. Be- 
fore fighting Liston, he recited a poem predicting that his powerful punch would 
lift his opponent 'clear out of the ring' and into space. After describing the audi- 
ence's restlessness and the referee's anxiety about whether or not to start the 
count, Ali continues the story: 

But our radar stations have picked him up 

He's somewheres over the Atlantic. 

Who would have thought 

When they came to the fight 

That they'd witness the launching 

Of a human satellite. 

Yes, the crowd did not dream 

When they put down their money 

That they would see 

A total eclipse of the Sonny. 253 

After the second Liston fight, Ali declared himself 'the astronaut of boxing' 
(compared to Joe Louis and Dempsey, who were 'just jet pilots') and he often 
spoke of his ambition to become champion of the universe, defeating 'slick 
shiny-headed green men' from Venus or Mars. There was, Ali admitted in 1965, 
'one problem': 'they might not let me on that ship ... I'm going to contact Mar- 
tin Luther King and see if he can integrate those ships because they will send 
two men on the planet and I want to be the first coloured one.' 254 These re- 
marks provided the starting point for Raymond Washington's 1969 poem, 
'Moon bound'. The only way 'black folks going to the moon', Washington jokes 
bitterly, is if it proves unfit for human habitation but good for growing cotton. 
Then, 'Stokely on the moon / Muhammad Ali on the moon / Rap on the moon 
. . . white folks / going to send blackfolks to the moon / whether they like it 
or not'. 255 

The ability to translate a 'tendency to boast and brag' into a successful career 
as a 'celebrity' poet, rapping in 'Black style' with 'Black exaggerations', is the sub- 
ject of John Oliver Killens's 1971 satire, The Cotillion. But even Killens's narrator, 
Ben Ali Lumumba, wearies of those who aspire to a 'world of total Blackness' 
and the way in which 'the competition went on and on, never ending, to deter- 
mine the World Individual Champeenship of Blackness'. 256 Black Arts' 'cham- 
peenship' competitions took place in cafes, theatres, little magazines and small 


presses all over America. Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali was introducing 'black 
oral rhyming culture into the mainstream' world of network television. 257 

Ali's involvement with television began almost as soon as he started boxing. 
One of the attractions of the Columbia police gym in Louisville was the fact that 
the club fights were televised in a Saturday night show called Tomorrow's Cham- 
pions. ('I watch you all the time on tv,' the girl who first kissed him is reputed 
to have said. 258 ) When he turned professional, commentators declared that he 
was 'made for' television and that television 'seemed to be invented' for him. 259 
Ali himself later wrote about the importance of television in the development 
of his style inside and outside of the ring. Inside, he had 'hated the sight on tv 
of big, clumsy, heavyweights plodding' and so determined to be 'as fast as light- 
weight'; outside, he had seen the theatrical entrances of the wrestler Gorgeous 
George, and realised that 'if I talked even more, there was no telling how much 
money people would pay to see me'. 26 ° 

In 1908, Jack London drew on a long tradition that Jessie Fauset dubbed 'the 
black American as a living comic supplement' and cast Jack Johnson in the role of 
'clown', claiming that 'his face beamed with all the happy, care-free innocence of 
a little child'. 261 Nearly 50 years later, a Newsweekpoll revealed that the most pop- 
ular stereotype that whites held about blacks was that they laugh a lot'. Some 
worried that Ali, who laughed and smiled more in public in a week than Joe Louis 
did in his entire life', simply confirmed that view. 262 But however much he smiled, 
Ali was acutely aware of the possibilities of television, using it as a tool to be ex- 
ploited for his own ends (financial and otherwise). 263 Never mind the ring - every 
chat show, press conference and weigh-in became a space for oratory as well as the- 
atre. 1 liked being who I was,' he once said, 'because they would put me on televi- 
sion and when I say, "I'm the greatest, I'm pretty," that means that little black 
children and people who felt like nothing say, "We got a champion"'. 264 


During the 1960s neither Norman Mailer nor Bob Dylan much liked discussing 
their middle-class Jewish upbringing. Instead both adopted a variety of popu- 
lar American outlaw personae, including those of fighter and fight fan. 265 

Dylan's first public association with boxing came in 1964 when he wrote 
'Who Killed Davey Moore?', a reworking of 'Who Killed Cock Robin?', about the 
death of a young black boxer and the refusal of his manager, the referee, and 
the anonymous mass of gamblers, boxing writers and spectators to admit any 
responsibility. All are players in 'the old American game', and all, Dylan sug- 
gests, are to blame. 266 In 1976, Dylan took up the cause of another black boxer- 
victim, Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter. Once a middleweight contender, Carter had 
been convicted for three murders in 1967 and 1976 and, despite several appeals, 
had been in prison ever since. In 1974 Carter published his autobiography, The 
Sixteenth Round, and his case quickly became a cause celebre. 267 Nelson Algren 
moved to Paterson, New Jersey, to research the case (his fictional version, The 


Devil's Stocking, was published posthumously), while George Lois, designer of 
Esquire magazine covers, established a trust fund for legal expenses. Lois per- 
suaded celebrities from Burt Reynolds to Muhammad Ali to add their support. 
'I know you all came here to see me, because Bob Dylan just ain't that big,' Ali 
told a largely white audience at the Madison Square Garden benefit concert, 
but 'you've got the connections and the complexion to get the protection'. 268 
Dylan's 'Hurricane' tells the story of Carter in cinematic detail, before conclud- 
ing, 'To see him obviously framed / Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to 
live in a land / Where justice is a game.' 269 The first retrial ended with Carter's 
reconviction; he was finally freed after a further trial in 1985, and in 1993 be- 
came the first boxer to receive an honourary championship belt. 

In 1964 and in 1976 Dylan was able to write 'finger-pointin" songs like 
'Davey Moore' and 'Hurricane' with equanimity: in fact 'Hurricane' became the 
centrepiece of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour which self-consciously tried to 
conjure up the good 'old days' of 'civil rights rallies down in Mississippi'. 270 In 
the intervening years, however, Dylan was often anxious about being labelled 
as spokesman for any particular cause. This anxiety first manifested itself in a 
1964 album which offered to reveal Another Side of Bob Dylan. In a song entitled 
'I Shall Be Free No. 10', Dylan announces that he is 'just average, common', no 
'different from anyone'. Soon, however, he is imagining himself as a contender 
for the heavyweight crown. Protesting about Davey Moore in the Guthrie-Ochs 
tradition is abandoned in favour of a performance as Cassius Clay, with Dylan 
determined 'to match the Louisville Lip rhyme for rhyme, boast for boast.' 271 

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day 

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay 

I said "Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come 

26, 27, 28, 29, I'm gonna make your face look just like mine 

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you'd better run 

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won't even recognize you 

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen. 272 

Dylan's self-mockery manifests itself in both the ridiculousness of his giant- 
killing rhetoric and the casual improvisation of rhyming 'clean' with 'spleen' 
(and later 'poet' with 'blow it'). 

In 1969, Simon and Garfunkel released a single called 'The Boxer' which 
was 'widely interpreted' as being about Dylan's career up to 1969. 273 Unsuccess- 
ful in the folk community ('I come looking for a job, but I get no offers'), Dylan- 
the-boxer ends up succumbing to what Simon calls the 'come-ons from the 
whores on Seventh Avenue', that is, the bosses of Columbia Records. Eventu- 
ally, everything falls to pieces when the protagonist finds that he has 'squan- 
dered [his] resistance on a pocket full of mumbles'; in other words, his singing 
voice has become unintelligible and his lyrics less concerned with 'resistance' 
than with surreal juxtapositions and obscure allusions. The final line of 'The 


Boxer', on this reading, acknowledges that the protagonist, although beaten 
down, remains 'a fighter by his trade'. In 1970 Dylan recorded the song on Self 
Portrait, an album of covers in which he again questions the idea of a fixed and 
knowable identity. The album was a self-conscious attempt to send out what 
he would later call 'deviating signals'. 274 'The Boxer' is only one of many per- 
sonae at play here, and Dylan further undermines any claim to identifying the 
singer with the song by recording it on two simultaneous but discordant tracks. 

The boxer-motif recurred in 2004 when Dylan published the first volume of 
his memoirs, entitled Chronicles. The book begins with his arrival in New York in 
1961. John Hammond, of Columbia Records, had introduced Dylan to publisher 
Lou Levy, and the story opens with Levy taking the singer to dinner at Jack 
Dempsey's Restaurant, a restaurant whose slogan was 'Love Matches are made 
in heaven, Fight Matches are made at Jack Dempsey's' (illus. 148). (It is also the 
place where Michael Corleone goes to meet his father's rival in Mario Puzo's The 
Godfather, a meeting that will transform him into a gangster. 275 ) When Levy in- 
troduced Dylan to Dempsey, the great champion mistook the young man for a 
fighter. '"You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you'll have to put on a few 
pounds. You're going to have to dress a little finer, look a little sharper - not that 
you'll need much in the way of clothes when you're in the ring - don't be afraid 
of hitting somebody too hard."' 276 Dempsey is quickly put right about Dylan's 
profession, and the story moves on. Why does Dylan begin his story here? Cer- 
tainly it's true that signing contracts with Levy and 
Hammond was the beginning of his success, but 
something additional seems to be implied. Dylan - 
always seeking to appropriate new identities in order 
to be 'true to [him]self ' - seems to relish Dempsey's 
mistake and to take on his advice. 277 Much of the 
book is about becoming famous and working out 
how to live in the public spotlight, naked in the ring. 
It is also important that Dylan meets Dempsey, 
Depression hero of the white working class, and not 
some other boxer. To be mistaken for a boxer by 
Dempsey (the Woody Guthrie of his sport) is tanta- 
mount to being acknowledged by Guthrie himself, 
'the starting place for my identity and destiny'. 278 

After quickly achieving celebrity, Dylan devotes 
most of his chronicles to an account of his resistance 
to it, to feeling 'like a piece of meat that someone 
had thrown to the dogs'. 279 Halfway through the 
book, he tells another boxing story - that of Jerry 
Quarry's fight against Jimmy Ellis in 1967. 

Jimmy Ellis was a 'take the money and go 
home' kind of guy - boxing was a job to 


Advertisement for 
Dempsey's Restau- 
rant, Broadway, 
New York, 1955. 



p. IN HEAVEN <4 




lieiDWII tEIIlllllgl 

WiY b*L 4ftfc ft 501 b Sit 


Htrci wher* TOy'll 


and lhn\r wha knaw yau 
OFIN fnw» '2 NOON 

to 4 AU 







him, no more no less. He had a family to feed and didn't care about be- 
coming a legend . . . Jerry Quarry, a white boxer, was being touted as the 
new Great White Hope - an odious designation. Jerry . . . wanted no 
part of it. The white vigilante groups who came to cheer him didn't 
move Quarry ... he wouldn't accept their bigoted allegiance and resis- 
ted the dementia swirling around him. 280 

'I identified with both Ellis and Quarry,' Dylan concludes, 'and drew an analogy 
between our situations and responses to it.' Like Ellis, 'I too had a family to feed'. 
The analogy with Quarry is rather odder. 'I wasn't going to acknowledge being 
an emblem, symbol or spokesman', he says, as if representing folk music or the 
New Left was equivalent to being a symbol for white supremacism. 

Like Dylan, Norman Mailer did everything he could to break free from his 
childhood self, 'the one personality he found absolutely insupportable' - in his 
case, that of the 'nice Jewish boy' from Brooklyn rather than Minnesota. Being 
a nice Jewish boy meant being gentle, clean, and above all, 'modest' - 'he had 
been born to a modest family, had been a modest boy, a modest young man, 
and he hated that, he loved the pride and the arrogance and the confidence and 
the egocentricity he had acquired over the years'. 281 While Dylan alluded to 
journeymen boxers such as Ellis and Quarry to express his distaste for celebrity, 
Mailer sought only 'the greatest', a title that he applied seriously to Ali and less 
seriously to himself. 'Champ' was just one of many 'half-heroic and three-quar- 
ters comic' advertisements for himself that Norman' or 'Mailer' cultivated. 282 
In The Armies of the Night (1968), for example, he noted the instability of his 
speaking voice at the Pentagon demonstration against the Vietnam war; how, 
without any plan, his accent shifted from Irish to Texan, from 'Marlon Brando's 
voice in The Wild One' to some 'Woo-eeeee's and grunts' which showed 'hints of 
Cassius Clay.' Eventually he tried 'to imitate a most high and executive voice', but 
that too came out as 'shades of Cassius Clay'. 283 Mailer's versions of American 
masculinity are elaborately constructed masquerades, many of which, he 
acknowledges, are the result of a 'wretched collaboration with the multimillion- 
celled nausea machine, that Christ-killer of the ages - television'. 284 Even as he 
asserts a hyper-masculinity, Mailer's deadpan humour underlines its anxieties; 
even as he cultivates celebrity, he attacks the means by which it is produced. 

Mailer's writing is obsessed with America, both in reality and as an idea. 
'The grandson of immigrants', he said that he could never really be an American; 
he could, nonetheless, 'have a love affair with America', and occasionally even 
feel like an American'. 285 In order to do this, Mailer (not unlike Abraham Cahan 
60 years earlier) had to find both an appropriate subject matter and an appro- 
priate language or style. From the mid-fifties onward, boxing played a part in 
both. 286 This is not to say that, like Cahan and others, he was interested in the 
ways in which a subculture (and its slang) could represent a nation. For Mailer, 
America' and 'boxing' were much less concrete than that. Instead the boxing 
match provided a 'metaphor' of the 'schizoid' nature of 'modern life', a useable 


structure within which to explore many of the violently felt debates of Cold War 
America: debates about sex, gender, sexuality and race, about vitalism and the 
death wish, about literary style, and, all too often, about literary rivalry. 287 1 will 
say a little about these different debates, but really they are all the same. Mailer 
presents every concept in absolute and rather abstract terms: an essential mas- 
culinity is pitted against an essential femininity, an idealized heterosexuality con- 
fronts a mythical homosexuality; imaginary 'blacks' encounter imaginary 'whites'. 
The continuing clash of one against each other is what constitutes 'existential pol- 
ities', and 'form' is 'the record of a war ... as seen in a moment of rest'. 288 In fiction 
then, Mailer's characters became the embodiments of opposing positions which 
need to be argued through; in non-fiction, he favoured the q&a in which he could 
have 'a rousing club fight' with an interviewer, or sometimes enter the 'arena' with 
an imagined alter ego. 289 And sometimes genres - in particular, fiction and history 
- argue with each other. 290 'The element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmar- 
ish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed'. 291 

If all relationships have the same dialectic structure, then it makes equal 
sense to use the language of sex to describe boxing - the first fifteen seconds of 
a fight are equivalent 'to the first kiss in a love affair' - and the language of box- 
ing to describe sex. 292 For the narrator of 'The Time of Her Time' (1959), boxing 
provides a grammar for 'the language of bodies', while the 'dialectic' of sex stages 
conflicts between Jewishness and non-Jewishness, high culture and low culture, 
and even the competing therapeutic claims of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm 
Reich. 293 If conflict is the model for the relationship between men and women, 
men additionally face an internal battle between heterosexuality and homosex- 
uality (women don't seem to have this problem). The brutal outcome of the 
1962 fight between Emile Griffith and Benny (Kid) Paret is said to dramatize 
the 'biological force' with which men disavow their inherent homosexuality. 294 
Paret had taunted Griffith with homophobic remarks at the weigh-in and dur- 
ing the fight, and Griffith responded by beating him to death. 295 For Mailer, 
this is an example of the ring not doing its usual job of containing and control- 
ling (or sublimating) sexual desire. 296 Since Ali and Frazier can 'kiss' as long 
and hard as they like inside the ring, they have no need to do so elsewhere. Nor 
do they need to kill each other. 

The boxing ring also enacts and thus contains another conflict that Mailer 
sees as fundamental to American culture, one between blacks and whites. Again 
his definitions recycle familiar essentialist stereotypes: whites are civilized, sophis- 
ticated, cerebral, literate and literary, while blacks are primitive, illiterate, 'phys- 
ically superior', attuned to the 'pleasures of the body', and fluent in its 
language. 297 James Baldwin (and many others) complained about Mailer's ten- 
dency to see 'us as goddam romantic black symbols'. 298 While this is undoubt- 
edly true, it is not surprising - Mailer sees everyone and everything symbolically. 

Mailer first started to think about literary style in relation to boxing in the 
mid-fifties, when he sought out a new and more 'muscular' style for his third 
novel, The Deer Park. It is the story of an Irish-American orphan called Sergius 


O'Shaughnessy who before the story begins had 'boxed [his] way into the mid- 
dleweight semi-finals of an Air Force enlisted man's tournament' and therefore 
into flying school. 2 " O'Shaughnessy goes first to Hollywood where the produc- 
ers are initially dismissive ('I didn't even know the athlete could read') and then, 
when he gets depressed (becoming 'a boxer without a punch'), to Mexico. There 
he plans to learn to be the 'first great and recognized American matador', but 
finally he gives up his novel on bullfighting as 'inevitably imitative' of Heming- 
way. 300 O'Shaughnessy's crisis of confidence reflected that of his creator; on 
receiving the proofs, Mailer decided The Deer Park needed substantial revision. 
He would abandon the novel's 'poetic style', rip up its 'silk', smash its 'porce- 
lain', create a first-person voice 'bigger' than himself, and think much more 
closely about pace. 301 That bigger voice and controlled pace would restore the 
book's punch. 302 

Mailer's next book was, he later said, 'the first one to be 'written in what be- 
came my style'. 303 Advertisements for Myself (1959) spanned Mailer's career to date 
and included stories, essays, interviews and drafts of The Deer Park; there are two 
contents lists and one offers the book as a 'biography of style'. Mailer opens the 
book by declaring his arrival as a major American writer, an identity which, it 
seemed, required both a new style and a new persona. 'I started as a generous but 
very spoiled boy, and I seem to have turned into a slightly punch-drunk and ugly 
club fighter who can fight clean and fight dirty, but liked to fight.' 304 If fighting 
(clean and dirty) was part of that style (the making of an American), so too, it 
seemed, was an obsession with celebrity culture and one's own place in it. Even 
while working on his fourth novel, An American Dream, Mailer was shifting 
toward an 'enormously personalized journalism' which would explore the 'dream 
life of the nation' as embodied in the iconic figures of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn 
Monroe and Muhammad Ali. 3 ° 5 Kennedy was first. Mailer believed that 'Super- 
man Comes to the Supermarket', which presented Kennedy as a Brando-like 'per- 
sonality', was the 'act of propaganda' that won him the election. JFK was not a 
boxer, but, exploiting the fact that the convention was held in a sports arena, 
Mailer described him and his brother Bobby as fighters, 'hungry' to take on 
totalitarianism at home and abroad. More generally, the essay established the 
method that Mailer would use in his subsequent pieces on Griffith and Paret, 
Liston and Patterson, Ali and Frazier - a method that is said to have kick-started 
the decade's revival of the long, digressive essay. 306 

The sixties and seventies are often thought of as a 'kind of golden age in 
magazine writing'. 307 Despite Liebling's fears, television had not destroyed 
idiosyncratic sports reporting; instead it whetted the public's appetite for 
stories about 'the public figures whom they had just seen flash on the screen'. 
Reporters who, in another era, had worked on a piece for a day or two, now spent 
up to two months honing them for up-market men's magazines such as Esquire 
or Playboy. And by writing journalism that 'read like a novel', Tom Wolfe ar- 
gued, the New Journalism 'would wipe out the novel' and become 'literature's 
main event'. 308 


Mailer's first 'existential' boxing essay was 'Ten Thousand Words a Minute', 
ostensibily about the Liston vs. Patterson fight, but also covering Griffith vs. 
Paret, Mailer's own 'club fight' with William Buckley, and his ongoing 'quarrel' 
with James Baldwin. All of these feed into a Lawrentian meditation on the anti- 
Establishment 'religion of blood'. Mailer clearly wanted the essay to be regarded 
as much more than a sports report, and he devotes quite a lot of space to dis- 
missing the traditional sportswriter as someone who endlessly rehashes tired 
statistics for stories that come out like oats in a conveyor belt'. The fight re- 
porter is also compared to a tailor taking measurements, a welfare officer offer- 
ing 'facts', or, the ultimate insult, 'an old prizefight manager, which is to say, . . . 
an old cigar butt.' If traditional hurried journalism is mere 'chores', then the 
new, 'enormously personalized' and carefully crafted, journalism (Mailer an- 
nounced that he'd spent seven weeks on the article) is a creative art more wor- 
thy of a boxer than a fight manager. 309 

For all that Patterson and Liston might represent on Mailer's political and 
'psychic seismograph' - Art vs. Magic; Love vs. Sex; God vs. the Devil - the two 
men are described in very similar and conventionally stereotypical terms. Pat- 
terson, when bad, is the 'dreamy Negro kid who never knew the answer in class'; 
when good, 'a jungle cat', jumping from his tree to 'swipe at a gorilla swinging 
by on a vine'. Liston too is both an animal and a child - his eyes remind Mailer 
of both a 'halfway reptile and sleepy leopard' and 'beautiful colored children, 
three or four years old'. The essay ends in a comic scene in which the drunken 
Mailer (having defeated Buckley and 'buried' his quarrel with Baldwin) offers to 
arrange a Patterson-Liston rematch. '"Listen," said I, leaning my head closer, 
speaking from the corner of my mouth, as if I were whispering in a clinch.' 

Out of Liston's eyes stared back the profound intelligence of a profound 
animal. Now we understood each other, now we could work as a team. 
'Say,' said Liston, 'that last drink really set you up. Why don't you go 
and get me a drink, you bum.' 

'I'm not your flunky,' I said. 

It was the first jab I'd slipped, it was the first punch I'd sent home. 
He loved me for it. The hint of a chuckle of corny old darky laughter, 
cottonfield giggles peeped out a moment from his throat. 'Oh sheet, 
man!' said the wit in his eyes. And for the crowd who was watching, he 
turned and announced at large, 'I like this guy'. 

A knowing exchange of insults allows Mailer to stop being an analytic, 
metaphor-driven liberal and become the kind of person (a hipster, a White 
Negro, a real American, a real man) whom Liston, the epitome of all these 
things, understands and likes. The moment soon passes, but Mailer can leave 
the conference feeling 'not too unclean'. 

It would be 1971 before Mailer wrote another essay on boxing. 'Ego' (later 
collected as 'King of the Hill'), an account of the first Ali-Frazier fight, is a much 


more tightly focused on its subject than its predecessor. Much more than either 
Liston or Patterson, Ali was the epitome of the existential hero, a man whose life 
was a work of art and who embodied 'the very spirit of the twentieth century.' 
Mailer is concerned with exploring the self-contained dialectical struggle at the 
heart of 'America's Greatest Ego': the fact that 'the mightiest victim of injustice 
in America' was also 'the mightiest narcissist in the land' proved that 'the twen- 
tieth century was nothing if not a tangle of opposition'. 310 

The essay is also, again, partly about writing, and in particular about style. 
Boxing is imagined as a kind of writing, a 'dialogue between bodies'. The white 
style is simple, clumsy and masculine; 'close to rock' and with 'guts'. The black 
style is 'complex', 'tricky' and feminine. Since all the 'dialogues between bodies' 
that Mailer describes take place between two black boxers, his dialectic requires 
him to suggest that, on each occasion, one black boxer has a 'white style'. Joe 
Frazier, as 'the greatest brawler of them all', thus becomes 'the white man's 
fighter' while Ali, 'the greatest artist of pugilism' with 'the exquisite reflexes of 
Nureyev', is feminized. Mailer tries to emulate the 'conversational exchange' be- 
tween these two bodily styles in the body of his essay. For the heavy relentless 
boxing style of Frazier, he uses long steady sentences (sentences that tire you to 
read aloud), punctuated with bursts of onomatopoeia: 

Frazier went on with the doggedness, the concentration, the pumped- 
up fury of a man who has so little in his life that he can endure torments 
to get everything, he pushed the total of his energy and force into an ab- 
solute exercise of will so it did nor matter if he fought a sparring part- 
ner or the heavy bag, he lunged at each equally as if the exhaustions of 
his own heart and the clangor of his lungs were his only enemies, and 
the head of the fighter or the leather of the bag as it rolled against his 
own head was nothing but some abstract thunk of material, not a thing, 
not a man, but thunk! thunk! something of an obstacle, thunk! thunk! 
thunk! to beat into thunk! oblivion. 

The speed and variety of Ali's punches, on the other hand, are translated into a 
prose of short rhythmic units, of constantly changing similes and metaphors: 

he played with punches, was tender with them, laid them on as delicately 
as you would put a postage stamp on an envelope, then cracked them in 
a riding crop across your face, stuck a cruel jab like a baseball bat held 
head on into your mouth, next waltzed you into a clinch with a tender 
arm around your neck, winged out of reach on flying legs, dug a hook 
with a full swing of a baseball bat hard into your ribs, hard pokes of a jab 
into the face, a mocking flurry of pillows and gloves, a mean forearm cut- 
ting you off from coming up to him, a cruel wrestling of your neck in a 
clinch, then elusive again, gloves snake-licking your face like a whip. 


For Mailer, the triumph of the fight's end is that Ali has somehow managed to 
combine both white masculine endurance (he could stand) and black feminine 
grace (he could dance). 311 

The Fight, Mailer's final meditation on the 'vortex' of heavyweight boxing, 
borrows more than its title from Hazlitt. 312 Like Mailer, Hazlitt found the oppo- 
sition of boxing a useful metaphor for discussing a wide variety of subjects, but 
especially style. The boxing match detailed in 'The Fight' is presented as a clash 
between an English style of solid empiricism and a rapid, skilful French style 
(although both fighters are English). In the various battles I have described here 
Mailer reworks these stylistic oppositions - he just gives them different names. 
Hazlitt 's solid English style becomes 'white' style (even when employed by black 
fighters), while the artful French style becomes the hipster style of both 'real' 
blacks and 'white Negroes'. 

Hazlitt once wrote of prose style that 'every word should be a blow: every 
thought should instantly grapple with its fellow'. In The Fight stylistic variation 
is expressed almost wholly through an ever-shifting repertoire of metaphors 
and similes, presented here as the equivalent of punches. 313 This is a risky strat- 
egy, for much of the time, when describing the training process or early rounds, 
Mailer mimics the fighters' boredom and lack of imagination by restricting his 
imagery to the most banal and predictable formulations: Foreman is a 'sleepy 
lion', an 'ox', a 'child'; working on the heavy bag, he's like a 'sledgehammer hit- 
ting a tree' or 'steamhammer driving a channel of steel into clay'. Ali is no more 
interesting: on the speedbag, he's like a 'potter working his wheel'; after run- 
ning, he's an 'overheated animal'. 314 Like the boxers, Mailer is reserving his best 
work for the main event. 

The fight itself is presented in three chapters, comparable, Mailer says, to 
the three acts of a play, another metaphor that he borrows from Hazlitt. During 
the first two rounds (Chapter Thirteen), the metaphors remain fairly dull. The 
boxers are again likened to animals (bulls, pumas and tigers) and their punches 
compared to gun shots. Occasionally, something more interesting occurs - Fore- 
man's head, for example, is described as a rivet under a riveting gun - but Mailer 
acknowledges that two rounds have felt like eight because he has been 'trying 
to watch' (that is, write) with the 'fighters' sense of time'. 315 During Chapter 
Fourteen (rounds three to five), Foreman's effort increases and Mailer ups his 
figurative game to match - Foreman boxes 'like a bricklayer running up a lad- 
der', his legs are like wheels with a piece chipped out of the rim'. 316 Ali holds 
back but occasionally he (and therefore Mailer) unleashes something unex- 
pected - a punch from the ropes is like a housewife sticking a toothpick in a 
cake to see if it is ready'. The chapter's title 'The Man in the Rigging' refers to 
Ali's rope-a-dope, but also to Melville's Moby-Dick (a novel he'd mentioned ear- 
lier in the essay). If Foreman is the whale, and Ali is Ahab, then, Michael Cowen 
suggests, Mailer becomes Ishmael, the observer who has 'climbed the mast into 
a squall of magical forces'. 317 In the final three rounds of the fight (the final act, 
the final chapter), Foreman continues to fight in the same fashion and so Mailer 


continues to describe him in the routine language of artillery fire and bulls. Ali, 
however, surprises with a range of unexpected shots, the consequences of which 
Mailer expresses in elaborate metaphors. As Foreman struggles to cope with 
Ali's punches his legs begin to 'prance like a horse high-stepping along a road 
full of rocks'; when Ali finally hits the decisive blow, he falls to the floor, like a 
six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news'. 318 

Hazlitt's 'The Fight' began with the narrator-protagonist keen to escape the 
sentimental complications of daily life. Mailer is similarly keen for diversion, 
but, in his case, the disappointing love affair is not with a woman but with him- 
self. His thoughts have been 'mediocre' and repetitive, like everyone else's'. At 
51, he is feeling old. Moreover, his love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental 
orgy at its worst' had not held up under several 'seasons of Black Power'. All of 
these feelings are expressed in the language of indigestion and constipation. 319 
Hazlitt travelled companionably to the heart of the country, discussing Cob- 
bett and Rousseau en route; Mailer flies Pan Am to Conrad's 'Heart of Dark- 
ness' in Vachel Lindsay's 'Congo', and on the return journey, plays dice with the 
air stewardess. 320 Both men experience a 'restoration of being' through jour- 
neys to watch boxing. But while Hazlitt ends by acknowledging the ephemeral 
achievement of both the boxing match and his essay, Mailer wants more, noth- 
ing less in fact than the restoration of the title 'champ among writers'. 321 The 
book plays with various versions of magical thinking, but all are designed to 
the same end - 'the powers of regeneration in an artist'. Ali works magic on 
Mailer by showing him that regeneration is possible; set against his example is 
that of Hemingway, whose suicide fourteen years earlier haunts the book. 322 

Mailer wrote many pieces on Hemingway, who remained for him the rep- 
resentative American, the model for hard-won manliness as well as (not coin- 
cidentally) authorial stardom. 323 On Mailer's reading, Hemingway's notion of 
writers competing for an elusive championship belt seems not so much an act 
of macho posturing as one of psychic compensation. Mailer adopted and 
developed this metaphor at some length, with additional pathos. For while 
'Punching Papa' faced the likes of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Farrell and 
Faulkner, the second half of the twentieth century had not, Mailer thought, pro- 
vided opposition of similar quality. In the age of Malamud, Pynchon, Bellow, 
Cheever, Updike and Vidal, he felt it was no great claim for him to say, I'm going 
to be the champ until one of you knocks me off'. 324 If Hemingway was compa- 
rable with Ali, Mailer declared himself merely the 'Ezzard Charles of the heavy- 
weight division'. 325 

Leaving Hemingway behind (if not actually beating him), Mailer rejects the 
modernist credo of technique (which he dismisses as mere 'craft', 'a grab bag of 
procedures, tricks, lore, formal gymnastics, symbolic superstructures, method- 
ology in short' - the kind of thing he elsewhere identified with light and mid- 
dleweight fighters) in favour of an 'exist entially' informed prose (the writer, like 
the heavyweight, aware that he is 'the big toe of God'). 326 While the great writ- 
ers of the twenties worried about lean prose style, the 'great writer' of the sixties 


was more concerned with keeping his 'consciousness in shape' and not letting it 
get 'flabby'. 327 

For all Mailer's talk of style, he is ultimately less interested in boxing as a 
way of explaining the processes of writing than in the fight as a metaphor for 
the public life of the writer. Byron had dismissed 'quarrels of authors' as an 
inferior form of sparring, mere evidence of 'an irritable set'. 328 Mailer, how- 
ever, believed that regular spats with other male writers was an essential part 
of 'keeping in shape'. Asked by an interviewer whether he let anyone see his 
work in progress, Mailer replied, 'I do it the way I box: I pick my sparring part- 
ners carefully. Usually I'll box with people who are so good that I'm in no dan- 
ger of getting hurt because they consider it obscene to damage me. Or I'll box 
with friends where we understand each other and are trying to bring out the 
best in each other as boxers. The same thing with an early stage of a manu- 
script.' 329 Once a book was published, however, the gloves came off and the 
real competitive business of being a writer began: at parties, during marches 
and (a sign of the times) on television. 330 

Sparring on television, it seemed, made a proper celebrity fighter, even if the 
show in question was Saturday Night with David Frost rather than the Gillette 
Sport Cavalcade -for 'maybe', Mailer wrote, 'he had never been as aware before 
of all America out there . . . a million homes tuning [in].' 331 And if Frost is imag- 
ined as Henry Cooper - 'David had come at him like a British heavyweight 
mauler, no great skill, but plenty of shove' - then it seems to follow that Mailer 
is the Ali of on-the-couch guests. 332 (And like Ali, Mailer is pleased to note how 
'telegenic' he is - 'he appeared even better on tv, he thought, than in the mir- 
ror'. 333 ) The chat show provided the ideal forum for literary quarrels which 
Mailer easily and repeatedly refigured as boxing matches. After an appearance 
with Nelson Algren, he concludes that 'two middleweight artists had fought a 
draw'. 334 His much-publicized quarrel with Gore Vidal on The Dick CavettShow 
in 1971 was a less satisfactory affair. Sharing the couch with the two men was 
Janet Flanner (whom Mailer accused of being 'Mr Vidal's manager' instead of 
the 'referee'); at the end of the Show, Cavett asked the audience to let us know 
who you think won'. 335 

The most interesting of Mailer's 'quarrels with authors' was that with 
James Baldwin (illus. 119). The two men became friends in 1956, and, Morris 
Dickstein argues, the 'precedent' of Baldwin's long, digressive essays, which 
interwove autobiographical, philosophical and political meditations, made 
'Mailer's own breakthrough thinkable'. For Dickstein, Advertisements would 
not have been possible without the example of Baldwin's 1955 Notes of a Native 
Son, while The Armies of the Night was 'quite deliberately' Mailer's version of 
The Fire Next Time. 336 Not that Mailer acknowledged these debts. Instead he 
dismissed Baldwin as 'too charming a writer to be major' and his writing as 
'noble toilet water'. 337 In 1961 Baldwin responded to this undisguised homo- 
phobia (and to 'The White Negro') by publishing an essay, 'The Black Boy 
Looks at the White Boy', which parodies both Mailer's 'boxer mannerisms' and 


his conflation of boxing (and, by inference, black men) with sex. 338 What, in 
other words, we are invited to ask, does Mailer mean when he says he wants to 
'slug' his friend? 339 Baldwin designates the essay a love letter' and describes 
Mailer as both 'charming' and, in the way he jabs his 'short, prodding 
forefinger', faintly ridiculous. Their 'circling around each other' expresses a 
fear that 'the other would pull rank', but also the fact that they liked' but could 
not understand one another. 340 

The following year, both men were commissioned by men's magazines to 
cover the Patterson-Liston fight and both ended up writing essays that are 
partly about their own quarrel. Mailer openly notes that the empty ringside 
seat between Baldwin and himself reflected the 'chill' that had come between 
them - 'Not a feud, but bad feeling'. But all is resolved when Patterson is 
knocked down - 'in the bout's sudden wake', he is pleased to acknowledge, 
they 'buried' their quarrel. Mailer is, however, unable to let things be. When 
Baldwin asks after his sister, he replies, 'why didn't he consider marrying her, 
quick as that, which put me one up on old Jim again, and we shook our writer's 
hands'. 341 Baldwin is less direct, merely mentioning that his 'weird and vio- 
lent' depression was due to having had 'a pretty definitive fight with someone 
with whom I had hoped to be friends'. His personal depression is, he suggests, 
linked to a depression about the subject matter which he found himself writ- 
ing about. Boxing had very different connotations for Baldwin than it did for 
Mailer (and this was something that his friend did not seem able to appreciate). 
In 'My Dungeon Shook', Baldwin wrote of the need of 'every Negro boy' to find 
'a "thing", a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way'. Before he became 
a writer Baldwin chose the church, but he explained that that was partly be- 
cause he saw few other options in the Harlem of his youth. 1 could not become 
a prizefighter,' he wrote; 'many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not 
sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I 
grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously'. 342 
Elsewhere he cited the fact that his 'first hero was Joe Louis' as evidence of the 
way in which the 'Negro children of [his] generation' had been limited and 
'controlled by white America's image' of them. 343 

'There aren't many ways to describe a fighter in training,' Baldwin begins 
his account of Patterson vs. Liston, 'it's the same thing over and over'. But what's 
worse for him than banality is the recognition that boxing is simply another 
version of white boys looking at black boys and seeing 'only the Negro they 
wished to see'. 344 

It doesn't appear to have occurred yet to many members of the press 
that one of the reasons their relations with Floyd [Patterson] are so fre- 
quently strained is that he has no reason, on any level, to trust them, 
and no reason to believe that they would be capable of hearing what he 
had to say, even if he could say it. 


If Baldwin admires Patterson as 'the least likely fighter in the history of the 
sport', then, as Early notes, Baldwin was the least likely' person to write about 
it. 345 This identification may have been in Baldwin's mind ten years later when, 
recalling his success with The Fire Next Time, he noted, 'I was, in some way, in 
those years, without entirely realizing it, the Great Black Hope of the Great 
White Father.' 346 


In the midst of the 'Ali-mania' of the late seventies, it was perhaps not surprising 
that stories about white boxers flourished. Consolatory tales of Anglo-Saxon tri- 
umph had first become popular in 1909, after Jack Johnson assumed the mantle 
of heavyweight symbolism. Apart from an interlude of Dempsey-mania in the 
twenties, it became increasingly difficult to imagine white boxing in terms of tri- 
umph. For the rest of the century, the only thing that white boxers symbolized 
was stubborn endurance, a belief that survival is more admirable than victory. 

In Chapter Four, I outlined a model of the naturalist story as one of a rapid 
rise to a biological peak, followed by a long decline into age and exhaustion. 
Most of life, on this model, is the story of decline. What Philip Fisher terms the 
'chronicle of subtraction' was, I suggested, particularly appropriate for stories 
about the short careers of boxers. 347 For example, Leonard Gardner's ironically 
titled 1969 novel Fat City (filmed by John Huston in 1972) presents the decline 
of 29-year-old Billy Tully alongside the rise (in a minor way) of eighteen-year-old 
Ernie Munger. By the story's end, it is clear that Ernie's life is assuming the same 
shape as Billy's. In On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy famously complains to his 
brother that he was unable to reach his 'peak' 'that night at the Garden', the one 
night when he 'coulda been a contender'. But even Terry never doubts that he 
was always going to go 'downhill' after that. For a boxer, victory is always tem- 
porary. 'Only . . . defeat is permanent'. 348 

If RagingBull (1980) were ever remade to follow the lines of a conventional 
naturalist plot, Jake La Motta's peak would be identified as the night he defeated 
Marcel Cerdan to become middleweight champion. This is certainly how La 
Motta himself describes it in his autobiography: 'There can't be a high any 
higher than being a world's champion,' he notes, before adding 'and - though 
I didn't recognize it then - 1 was on my way to my lowest low.' 349 Scorsese's film 
pays very little attention to the highest high (and indeed has La Motta complain 
about his small hands and how he'll never be able to fight Joe Louis, 'the best 
there is'). 35 ° The championship fight is over in minutes and the next scene jumps 
ahead a year to present an overweight La Motta at home, eating a hero sandwich 
as he tries to get the tv to work. No longer a compelling bodily spectacle on the 
screen but mere spectating body - the film suggests that it is inevitable to be 
one or the other - his distended stomach blocks the picture. All that is left of the 
hero is the sandwich. The closest the film comes to providing a 'peak' is the fight 
in which La Motta loses his title to Sugar Ray Robinson. That peak is achieved 


through the fetish of La Motta's blood, a kind of holy water. We see him sponged 
down with blood-infused water and receive a punch that splatters the ringside 
spectators in slow-motion sweat and blood. This is both a familiar indictment 
of the atavistic crowd (including, of course, the cinema audience) and a debased 
holy blessing. The fight was stopped in the thirteenth round, with La Motta still 
on his feet and declaiming, 'I never went down. You never got me down.' 'If this 
scene cannot be interpreted as an instance of erectile pride,' quips Allen 
Guttmann, 'then Dr. Freud labored in vain.' 351 Robinson (Johnny Barnes) inci- 
dentally has no lines in the scene or indeed the whole film. He is simply there 
so that Jake can stand up to him. 

The naturalist chronicle of subtraction becomes, in La Motta's case, a 
chronicle of addition, as he (or rather DeNiro in the apotheosis of method act- 
ing) puts on 55 pounds. 352 This is hardly surprising since, as Steven Kellman 
notes, more of the movie is set in kitchens and restaurants than in the ring. 353 
From the start, we see both versions of La Motta: in his prime -the Bronx Bull 
entering the ring in a leopard-skin robe and complaining about an overcooked 
steak and threatening to eat his neighbour's dog; and in his decline - a 'fat pig' 
performing in a nightclub, a 'fucking gorilla' bothering teenage girls. When he 
smashes his head against the prison wall, and yells 'I'm not an animal', we don't 
believe him. While Fat City, Rocky and even Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' qual- 
ify their meaty mysticism with accounts of the economic or psychological fac- 
tors that lead men to plot their lives in bodily terms, Raging Bull serves it raw. 354 
'Jake is an elemental man,' said Scorsese. 355 

If the story told by Raging Bull proper is unrelenting, the film's narrative 
frame suggests a way out. The final title (on a black screen) is a biblical quota- 
tion from John, 9: 24-26, which ends, All I know is this: once I was blind and 
now I can see.' Connecting Jake as a 'sinner' to Jesus Christ, this instructs us to 
reinterpret what we have just seen as a story of 'redemption through physical 
pain, like the Stations of the Cross, one torment after another'. 356 But if the 
bloody fight with Robinson becomes a version of the crucifixion, it is hard to 
locate a risen or redeemed La Motta - unless we think redemption can be 
signified simply by an awkward hug with his brother and a rote recitation of 'I 
coulda been a contender' in the debased setting of the nightclub, a church whose 
creed is simply 'that's entertainment'. 357 Indeed that scene ironically recalls the 
film's opening sequence during which (in between segments of the opening 
credits) La Motta is seen shadowboxing languidly to the strains of the inter- 
mezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. 358 The camera stays outside the ring and ob- 
serves the distant and solitary boxer through three thick ropes. This is a 
transcendent world, a dream world without messy relationships, a world in 
which the boxer in his monk-like robe can be truly an artist; no longer an enter- 
taining, bloody bull but, finally, a dancer like Sugar Ray or Ali. But lyricism and 
Christianity can only exist outside of the film's narrative. Within the story, we 
remain fully immersed in the secular, Darwinian world of La Motta's pointless 
pain. There is no progression from body to soul. 


Clearly attracted to the naturalism of mid-century boxing films, Scorsese did 
not simply want to copy it. Rather, Raging Bull both emulates and strives to disrupt 
the style of the many films that it quotes and borrows from: The Set-Up (a bloody 
gum-shield dropping to the canvas); The Harder They Fall (sweat knocked off a 
boxer's face); The Quiet Man (the pop of flashbulbs accompanying the memory of 
a fatal bout); The Day of the Fight (a through-the-boxer's-legs camera angle). 359 
Scorsese was determined that each fight scene should have a 'different aura', and 
to that end endlessly varied the camera angle, movement and speed (sometimes, 
cinematographer Michael Chapman noted, he shifted from 24 frames per second 
to 48 frames per second to 96 frames per second and back to 24 within a single 
shot.) 360 Against these rapid temporal shifts, the choreographic rhythm of the 
fights is created by a soundtrack of photographers' exploding flash bulbs and pow- 
erfully amplified punches which not only acts like 'scoring music' to what we see, 
but makes it even more surreal and abstract. 361 Raging Bull's stylized and operatic 
naturalism signals its auteur's mastery and transcendence of the B-movies he 
quotes. 362 'To call it a boxing picture is ridiculous,' Scorsese said. 363 

The most emphatic stylization comes through the film's photography, de- 
signed to make it look like a tabloid' from the forties or fifties. 364 This was the 
heyday of stroboscopic photography - a method of freezing action at 1/3, oooth 
to 1/30, oooth of a second through the explosive illumination of stroboscopic 
speed lighting. Weegee made the technique famous, but it was also used to 
startling effect by Charles Hoff in his sports pictures for the New York Daily 
News. Hoff 's pictures document the exact and decisive moment in which a 
blow is landed, and as such were often used as evidence in controversial cases. 
They also record the precise, if momentary, distortions to the face of the 
punch's recipient, creating a realism of a particular grotesque and abstract kind 
- one that says this particular 1/30, oooth of a second is the moment that 
counts. Such concentration on the instant runs counter to the naturalist nar- 
rative which characteristically describes gradual decline by means of an accu- 
mulation of increasingly sordid detail. It is also a 'reality' that is heightened 
and stylized by stark flash lighting effects. Announced as signifying an adherence 
to a particular kind of gritty truth, this kind of black and white photography 
(as used by Hoff in the Daily News and Chapman in Raging Bull) inevitably 
aestheticizes and mythologizes - reducing the murky palette of life to images 
of clear-cut tabloid contrast. 

Sylvester Stallone first got the idea for Rocky in 1975. He was unemployed 
and feeling sorry for himself when he saw a journeyman fighter called Chuck 
Wepner take on Muhammad Ali. 'I identified with Wepner,' Stallone later said, 
'the guy is going to get hammered.' Wepner had been working in a series of 
menial jobs until Don King (in the guise of 'equal opportunity employer') trans- 
formed him into a lucrative white hope. 365 Against all expectations, Wepner 
managed to knock down Ali in the ninth round and stay standing to the end. 366 
Stallone went home and hammered out the first draft of Rocky in three days. 
Originally, Rocky was retired, but Stallone was easily encouraged to make him 


still an active fighter. 'I thought, "Let me try to make this a redemptive thing." 
And I tried to work this Christ symbol, this religious overtone'. 367 

If Raging Bull presented the foundation of redemption in bloody defeat, 
Rocky suggests that it begins in reinvention-through-hard-work, a Protestant 
American myth epitomized by Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1868). Early in the 
book, Alger makes plain how indebted he is to fairy tales of transformation such 
as Dick Whittington or Cinderella. When Dick is given a new set of clothes by 
his benefactor, he looks in the mirror and exclaims, '"that isn't me, is it? . . . It 
reminds me of Cinderella, when she was changed into a fairy princess."' 368 Rein- 
vention starts by changing one's appearance by changing one's clothes. Cin- 
derella needed a new dress before she could leave the kitchen and go to the ball. 
Dressed in his new suit, Dick can move in very different circles than he had in 
his rags. For the boxer, however, physical transformation must take place at a 
more fundamental level - that of the body itself. Filmed in blockbuster 'bright 
colours, strong reds and blues' (complained Scorsese), Rocky is a pure example 
of such a fairy tale. 369 

Walking the streets of South Philadelphia in a vaguely comical hat, Rocky 
Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is 'just another bum from the neighbourhood', 
but unlike all the others, he is given the fairy-tale chance of fighting the World 
Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in a thinly 
disguised caricature of Muhammad Ali). 37 ° Most of the film focuses on the 
training process, on Rocky 's willing effort to transform his body and his life. 
This is not confined to the gym, and we see him pounding meat in the local 
abattoir, and running through the neighbourhood, the local Italian commu- 
nity literally behind him (illus. 120). 371 Presumably Apollo Creed has the 
backing of the black community, but we never see any local popular support 
for him - he is presented simply as the product of corporate (i.e. false and 
ugly) America. 

Apollo Creed's great crime, the film suggests, is assuming that he repre- 
sents America - he enters the title fight dressed as Uncle Sam and on his float 
adopts the garb and pose of George Washington crossing the Delaware. But he 
is an illegitimate Uncle Sam, not only because he is black, but because, with- 
out any suggestion of a political or religious affiliation, he is made to represent 
both greedy capitalism and the savvy and articulate (for which we are encour- 
aged to read glib) values of the counterculture. 372 Rocky - an inarticulate boy 
from 'the neighbourhood' - is really what 'the land of opportunity' wants to be 
all about. He is both white ethnic - the 'Italian Stallion' - and American: 
indeed, while Creed's race excludes him from 'true' Americanness, Rocky is 
uniquely qualified by his ethnicity (Italian, 'not that white'). 373 His very name 
aligns him to the great Italian-American champions of the fifties - Graziano 
and, the last great white heavyweight', Marciano (whose picture hangs on his 
wall). 374 'You know you kinda remind me of the Rock?' Rocky 's trainer, Mickey 
(Burgess Meredith) says at one point. 'You move like him and you have heart 
like he did.' 


Fantasies of the Rock's return had begun in the late sixties, when Murray 
Woroner, a Miami boxing promoter and radio producer, fed details of Ali's and 
Marciano's records into a computer and asked it to predict a winner. The com- 
puter decided that Marciano (equipped with 'a boxing style edited down to its 
bare essentials') would knock out the stylish Ali in the thirteenth round. 
Woroner then persuaded the two men to enact the 'superfight' on film. 375 

By 1976, however, Ali had regained his title and so all that could be asked 
of Rocky is that he regain his pride (and that of the country) by 'going the dis- 
tance'. 376 A self-conscious bicentennial fantasy, Rocky is set in the city of the 
Founding Fathers, Philadelphia, but for all the shots of the museum steps, the 
film's nostalgia is for a national spirit based on local values. As in the boxing 
films of the 1930s and forties, those values are embodied in the fighter's neigh- 
bourhood girlfriend. Unconcerned that he has not won, Rocky 's only impulse 
at the end of the fight is to call out Adrian'. 

If Raging Bull and Rocky were fantasies of white indestructibility (and griev- 
ance) in the face of superior black talent, Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil's 
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (dc Comics, 1978) offered a different kind of con- 
solation. 377 Ostensibly a tale of 'the fight to save earth from star-warriors', it is 
really a black-and-white 'buddy' story in the tradition of James Fenimore 
Cooper's classic American frontier novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). 378 Just 
as Natty Bumppo must go to the woods and learn the soon-to-be-lost Indian 
ways (from Chingachgook) before he can take on the alien French, so Superman 
must absorb Ali's 'native skills' before he can defeat the alien 'Scrubb'. The story 
begins with Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen walking through an 'inner- 
city ghetto' in 'downtown Metropolis' - they are, we are told, 'as out of place as 
they look'. They no longer seem to be employed by the Daily Planet but a tv 
network and they are looking to record an interview with Ali. Eventually they 
find him shooting hoops and 'moving among the neighbourhood youth with 
casual ease'. 379 The unlikeliness of Ali being there is ignored; this is, we are sup- 
posed to believe, his 'natural' setting. Suddenly the playground is invaded by an 
alien messenger. The Scrubb nation threatens to take over the earth if its labo- 
ratory-created abysmal brute, Hun'Ya, can defeat the greatest champion of the 
earth. Ali and Superman both offer their services, and they agree to hold a fight 
to decide who should take on Hun'Ya. It is this fight that is featured on the cover 
- and in many ways, the alien invasion is simply an excuse to stage it (illus. 121). 
Before they can compete, Ali agrees to train Superman (who has his superhu- 
man powers deactivated for the occasion). A page is devoted to a demonstration 
of Ali's best punches and Superman finally concedes that 'I never realized that 
there is so much to ringmanship. It's more than adding fist to face.' The big fight 
attracts a huge crowd - 'intelligent beings from a thousand worlds' undertake 
'the most massive migration in the history of the universe' to be there - while 
millions more, 'in the far corners of the universe', watch courtesy of the 'inter- 
stellar television network', with Olsen providing the commentary. It soon be- 
comes apparent that, like Rocky in the sequels, Superman 'has copied Ali's 


fighting style to a "t"!'- they are like 'mirror images of each other', Olsen says. 
'How strange it must be for Ali be fighting ... to well . . . himself!!' 380 Natty 
Bumppo has learnt his lesson well. 

Ali, however, is still the greatest fighter and in the later rounds, Superman 
gets badly beaten. 381 Like Rocky (and Jake La Motta), he won't 'fall down'; since 
the alien referee refuses to intervene, Ali finally refuses to continue. The story 
then moves on to Ali's fight against Hun'Ya, whose Foreman-like strength forces 
Ali to reprieve the 'rope-a-dope' (the fight also recalls the mythic battle of Amy- 
cus and Polydeuces). Ali seems to be weakening when the alien Emperor Rat'Lar 
comes to his corner and offers him a deal - 'if your governments agree to deed 
the peoples of earth to us as our slaves, we will spare them!'. The word 'slave' is 
enough to ignite Ali and he finally knocks Hun'Ya out of the ring (in a pastiche 
of Bellows's Dempsey and Firpo). The 'universe goes wild', but Rat'Lar won't 
accept the victory. All seems to be lost. 

At this point Superman comes back into the story. The defeat and injuries 
he sustained in the Ali fight were, it turns out, part of a cunning plan. Disguised 
as Ali's black trainer, Bundini Brown, Superman is free to roam the universe. 
'The man of steel' dispatches the alien armada, and the comic's final double- 
page frame shows him shaking hands with Ali, who acknowledges that 'We are 
the Greatest!' 382 

Superman's liberal credentials can be traced to his creation in 1938. The in- 
vention of two Jewish artists, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman, it has been 
suggested, is perhaps Jewish too. 383 He's certainly a foreigner, an alien from 
Krypton, an immigrant who has to be taught 'truth, justice and the American 
way' by the rural Yankee Kent family. Passing successfully (if anxiously) as the 
chisel-featured wasp, Clark Kent, he fought rapacious capitalists and Nazis 
throughout the thirties and forties. 384 It is, perhaps, not surprising therefore to 
find him making the familiar liberal move of putting on blackface in order to 
save the earth. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is nothing if not liberal. The fight 
attracts the creme of multicultural American celebrities (172 are depicted on 
the cover, accompanied by a who's who), and television viewers who are not just 
multicultural but multi-planetary. The tv commentator tells them that 'on 
earth, we don't show our intentions by fighting with our neighbours, but by 
showing what good friends we can be!' 385 He also explains that Superman is 
wearing his cape because otherwise 'many of our alien spectators wouldn't be 
able to tell the fighters apart! Except for subtle changes in hue, all humans look 
exactly alike to them.' 386 Intended as a dig at racist stereotyping, this remark 
nevertheless encourages us to think about the ways in which the story, like The 
Last of the Mohicans, distinguishes between its heroes. Ali's greatness lies in his 
perfection of a human skill (fighting) very much associated with the past. Super- 
man needs to learn this skill and use it, much as Natty Bumppo had to learn 
the tactics of survival in the wild. But when things come to the crunch, when he 
needs to defeat Magua, Natty Bumpo rises above the level of the Indians he had 
thus-far been emulating. Reaching for his rifle, he tells Chingachgook, 'I leave 


the tomahawk and knife to such as have a natural gift to use them.' 387 In the 
limited confines of the ring, Superman may have had to learn from Ali, but fists 
are finally not enough for the battles of space and time. Those require both 
superhuman powers and a superior human intelligence ('Got to think!! Got to 
think!!' reads one frame). As his ability to manipulate sophisticated technology 
reveals, Superman, not Ali, is 'the man of tomorrow'. Here at least, there is no 
'Black Superman'. 388 



No one would call the last decades of the twentieth century a golden age of boxing. 
There have been some great fighters - Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas 
Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr 
stand out - but the general feeling is that the sport is in decline. 1 This is particularly 
true of the heavyweight division. 2 Who today can name the heavyweight cham- 
pion of the world? And if so, which one? Twenty years ago things seemed different. 

At first the story of Mike Tyson promised to be one of Hollywood simpli- 
city - a fourteen-year old black boy with a Brooklyn 'Dickensian childhood' is 
taken in hand, and to the country, by a kindly old white man (Cus DAmato, 
already famous for making champions of Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres); the 
old man experiences a new lease of life before sadly dying, and, eighteen months 
after turning professional, the bad boy becomes the youngest-ever heavyweight 
champion of the world (illus. 149). 3 Boxing fans assured each other that the post- 
Ali slump was over. A terrible beauty is born', declared Joyce Carol Oates. 4 

Tyson's early record was impressive: winning eleven first-round knockouts 
in fifteen fights in 1985; straight wins and the wbc title in 1986; and ten months 
later, unifying the various strands of the heavyweight championship. 5 Tyson hit 
his peak the following year when he knocked out the previously undefeated 
Michael Spinks in the first round of his title defence. Soon afterwards, however, 
'it all started to go wrong'; the story switched genres. 6 In 1990, Tyson lost his 
title to the little-regarded Buster Douglas; two years later, he was convicted of 
the rape of a beauty queen and served three years in prison. 7 Even before the 
trial, Robert Lipsyte predicted that Tyson would become a 'symbolic character 
in various morality plays, a villain-victim of the Gender War, the Race War, the 
Class War, and the Backlash Against Celebrity Excess'. 8 Some spoke of Tyson's 
'tragedy' and described his new manager Don King as the 'Iago' who had 
fuelled the paranoia of an insecure Othello. 9 Others compared Tyson to Richard 
Wright's Bigger Thomas, doomed from the start. 10 

But Tyson's story was not over. On emerging from jail, his knockout style 
and 'dependably shocking' behaviour made him once again a huge box-office 
draw. 11 After all, as Ellis Cashmore notes, 'the Tyson of the imagination [did] 


not have to win rounds' or even fight decent opponents. 12 By the mid-nineties, 
boxing accounted for more than half of all pay-per-view programming, with 
Tyson again participating in the most successful single event - his November 
1996 fight against the 'Christian Warrior', Evander Holyfield. Approximately 
1.65 million households paid $49.95 each to watch and the fight grossed more 
than $80 million. 13 In their rematch the following year, Tyson bit off a piece of 
Holyfield's ear, to the delighted horror of the media. 14 Nevada revoked his 
licence for a year and fined him $3 million (actually only 10 per cent of his fee). 15 
No longer heroic or tragic, Tyson was now seen as a character in a horror movie: 
an 'ogre', a 'prehistoric creature rising from a fearful crevice in our collective 
subconscious', or maybe just Hannibal Lecter. 16 As he acted out scenes from his 
favourite movies - ear-biting threats from Raging Bull, pigeon-fancying from 
On the Waterfront -he seemed to believe in the persona he had so carefully cre- 
ated. 17 After a series of losses and injuries, he announced his retirement from 
boxing in 2005. In October 2006 he began a world tour of exhibition fights. 

In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates had predicted that Tyson would be 'the first 
heavyweight boxer in America to transcend issues of race'. 18 This did not prove 
to be true. Many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement were eroded during 
the eighties and, as Jesse Jackson observed, racism of various sorts became 'fash- 
ionable again'. 19 When Don King staged a 'coronation' for Tyson, Time maga- 
zine described the champion as a jewel-encrusted King Kong. 20 Much as it had 
in the 1910s, the dramatization of racial conflict meant money; only now it was 
a black promoter who dredged up white hopes. In 1982, King achieved great 



Mike Tvson (2000). 

success with a much-hyped but ultimately one-sided fight between Larry 
Holmes and Gerry Cooney, whom he marketed relentlessly as a white hope. A 
similar occasion was staged to celebrate Tyson's release from prison in 1995. 
His 89-second, ten-punch demolition of Peter McNeeley generated $63 million 
gross, and inspired the Hollywood satire, The Great White Hype (illus. 126). 21 
The eighties also saw a substantial increase in the geographical and cultural gap 
between the black middle and working class. In inner-city ghettos, conditions 
sharply deteriorated and sociologists began to speak of a black urban 'under- 
class', immured in crime and drugs. 22 Tyson's emergence coincided then with 
what Cornel West described as a new nihilism in black America, a nihilism 
which led to a revival of sixties-style Black Nationalism. 23 From the start King 
used its rhetoric and imagery to promote his star. As Tyson became 'public 
enemy' and the hero of hip hop culture, the black middle class distanced itself 
from his image. Some complained that 'we all have to live him down every day; 
we can't exult in, say, Colin Powell without having to address Mike Tyson', while 
others argued that 'progress' could be measured in the fact that the boxer's 
behaviour was 'a disgrace - but only to himself.' 24 

None of this was likely to change the minds of the doctors who, since the 
early 1980s, had embarked on a sustained, international campaign to abolish 
both amateur and professional boxing. Prompted by a new spate of ring deaths 
and growing evidence of short- and long-term neurological damage, the medical 
profession spoke out, condemning the sport as 'a throwback to uncivilized man' 
and urging their colleagues not to participate in its management. 25 But it was 
not only uncivilized man who kept on boxing. Despite new evidence of boxing's 
dangers, increasing numbers of women took up the sport. 26 The breakthrough 
for professional women's boxing came in 1995 when Christy Martin fought 
Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of the Tyson-Bruno match in Las Vegas. The 
main event was a desultory affair and sportswriters focused, with relief, on the 
competitive and exciting women's contest. Martin appeared to much acclaim on 
the cover of Sports Illustrated; inside, photographed with a vacuum cleaner, she 
said that she was 'not out to make a statement about women in boxing . . . This 
is about Christy Martin' (illus. 127) 27 Since 1996, a small number of professional 
women boxers have made a name for themselves. Some, like Lucia Rijker, came 
to boxing from the martial arts; others, like Laila Ali, Jacqui Frazier and Freeda 
Foreman, capitalized on their famous names and often fought each other. The 
language used to describe these celebrity fixtures was either humorously patron- 
izing - Laila Ali was 'a manicurist on a mission' who 'stings like a butterfly' - or, 
more usually, spitting with moral outrage. 28 The New York Post described the $2- 
million fight between Ali and Jacqui Frazier as a 'perversion', while the London 
Daily Mail complained that the debut of 'fat girl' Freeda Foreman meant that 
boxing finally had reached the (long-anticipated) 'depths of depravity'. 29 When, 
in 1998, Jane Couch won her legal challenge against the British Board of Boxing 
Control's refusal to issue licences to women, the British Medical Association 
spoke of a 'demented extension of equal opportunities'. 30 Male sportswriters 


tended to agree. 'Would it have made any difference,' Harry Mullan asked, 'if 
more of the spectators were women? Perhaps. It is the edge of sexual voyeurism 
which heightens my discomfort'. 31 

Sexual voyeurism is probably the main reason why women's boxing has 
flourished as vigorously in Hollywood as anywhere else. Since Barbra Streisand 
played coach to Ryan O'Neal's contender in The Main Event (1979), there have 
been scores of films about women boxers, coaches, and managers. 32 They range 
in style from soft-porn to comedy - Romy and Michele prepare for their high 
school reunion, the equivalent of the big fight, by attending boxercise class. 33 
Most, however, tout a feel-good feminist message and simply substitute a boy 
for a girl in a conventional plot. In Blonde Fist (1991) and Knockout (2003), girls 
fulfil their father's thwarted ambitions by winning a belt; in Girlfight (2000), 
The Opponent (2000) and Honeybee (2002), they dispense with their abusive 
boyfriends both in and out of the ring. 34 Singers such as Christina Aguilera and 
Pink regularly dress up as boxers to suggest that they're feisty and feminist and 
in control, an image that advertisers also use to sell a variety of products from 
deodorant with 'a different kind of strength' to vitamins with 'extra punch'. 

Several women amateur boxers have published memoirs which explore 
'what happens when you transpose generic female motivations and confusions 
into the boxing ring'. 35 Kate Sekules, for example, reports that she had no prob- 
lem fighting men, but had to work hard to overcome her reluctance to hit other 
women, while Leah Hager Cohen describes how boxing helped her to come to 
terms with anorexic and suicidal impulses and, finally, allowed her to fuse 'erotic 
and aggressive impulses' (a la Melanie Klein). 36 In 1999, Annie Leibovitz chose 
an image of a naked woman in boxing stance (with red gloves and a feminist 
text painted on her blacked-up body) to advertise an exhibition of photographs 
of American women at the millennium (illus. 128). 

But just as women put the notion of the gym as a male sanctuary to rest, so 
men reasserted it in the familiar terms of Rooseveltian strenuousness. 37 Partly 
due to the popularity of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel and David Fincher's 1999 
film adaptation, Fight Club, white-collar boxing has flourished in recent years. 38 
While the story presents the spread of bare-knuckle fight clubs as the first step 
to anarchism, the real life (and usually gloved) versions tended to advertise their 
socially stabilizing function. 39 'We thought that if people had boxing matches,' 
one teenager was quoted as saying, 'they could get it out instead of killing peo- 
ple in schools, or whatever.' 40 Fincher's film was also evoked as a model when, in 
August 2000, an American promoter introduced 'executive sparring' into a 
British context. At an event organized in the heart of the City, London's financial 
district, a group of hedge-fund managers and it specialists fought it out before 
an audience of 2,000. 41 Soon men too were writing memoirs of the psycholo- 
gically therapeutic benefits of their experiences as 'modern-day Corinthians'. 42 

If then, in recent times, boxing has not entered a new golden age, neither 
has it shown any signs of disappearing. The same could be said of the boxing 
story. Alessandro Baricco's City (1996) is about a thirteen-year-old boy who 


invents a boxing story whose plot and characterization are borrowed from a 
hundred 'black-and-white movies'. 43 Asked why he wrote about boxing, Bar- 
icco replied that the sport had 'everything' a writer might want: 'it's all very well 
telling yourself that Jack London has already done it. Sooner or later you fall for 
it.' 44 Writers, film-makers and artists have continued to fall for it, and not always 
in the name of postmodern pastiche. Boxers crop up in sculptures and paint- 
ings, installations and performances, in books for toddlers and teenagers, and 
in films and novels of every genre, from romance to the detective story to fan- 
tasy. 45 Boxing metaphor is endemic, in fiction, poetry, art and journalism, and 
in commentary on almost every other sport. 

In describing this material I have had to be highly selective. My aim is less to 
offer a comprehensive survey than to propose further lines of enquiry. Contem- 
porary cultural uses of boxing, like those explored in previous chapters, fall into 
three broad, overlapping, categories: dialectical, iconographic, and naturalist. 
Artists and writers who use boxing dialectically are most interested in the sport 
as a metaphor for opposition: the performed fight between two people drama- 
tizes an interaction between points of view or ideas. Those who use boxing icono- 
graphically are more interested in considering the symbolism of boxing's 
personnel and paraphernalia -that is, interpreting the meaning, and exploiting 
the aura, of the ring, gloves and mouthguards as well as individual boxers and 
fights. Finally, boxing lends itself to the naturalist desire to imagine formlessness, 
decline, damage and mortality. The naturalist boxer is not an icon but a piece of 
matter - his authenticity evident in his sweat, bruises and blood. In what fol- 
lows, I will briefly discuss a range of examples of each of these methods. 


Many times boxing is evoked simply as an assertively masculine way of express- 
ing competition or even collaboration. In 1988, for example, Andy Warhol and 
Jean-Michel Basquiat's joint exhibition was famously promoted by posters pre- 
senting the two artists as fighters engaged in interracial and intergenerational 
fisticuffs (illus. 150). 46 And when the subject of literary rivalry comes up, few 
resist the temptation to talk about championship bouts with Hemingway or 
Mailer. In Charles Bukowski's 'Class', the writer-narrator enters the ring with 
'Ernie'. After boxing like Sugar Ray' and hitting like Dempsey', he knocks Papa 
out. 'Nobody wins them all,' he tells the older man, 'Don't blow your brains 
out.' 47 Max Apple's 1976 short story Inside Norman Mailer' imagines a bout 
between the young aspiring author and his mentor for the literary heavyweight 
title. 48 (Apple later said that the story contained 'one of the best lines I've ever 
written': 'I was describing all that prize-fighting stuff and then I said, "You've all 
seen it - imagine it yourself!" That was a wonderful shortcut because I didn't 
want to write five pages describing prize-fighting.' 49 ) From Hemingway to 
Mailer to Apple and Bukowski, a fairly straightforward genealogy of masculine 
ego (an imitation of the 'series of punches on the nose' said to connect John 



Michael Halsband's 
photograph of Andy 
Warhol and Jean- 
Michel Basquiat as 
boxers, 10 July 1985. 

L. Sullivan to Lennox Lewis) is being mapped out as well as mocked. 50 But what 
happens when a woman wants to join in? Joyce Carol Oates is not known for 
ego; indeed her cultivation of 'invisibility', the stereotypical female position, is 
much commented upon. 51 Her 1987 essay On Boxingwas praised for its refresh- 
ing avoidance of 'hot competitive drive' and she herself has dismissed Heming- 
way's 'equation of masculinity with greatness in literature'. 52 Nevertheless, Oates 
too has used boxing to think about her career as a writer and she too has felt the 
need to raise her fists to Mailer. She was not, however, simply concerned with 
status. 53 More precisely Oates wanted to challenge the widely held assumption 
of female incomprehension of boxing, and by extension ofmenperse. 54 ln pub- 
lished extracts from her journal, she notes that while Mailer would be unable to 
consider the sport 'through a woman's eyes', she can easily imagine what it must 
mean 'through a man's eyes'. 'Am I being too self-assured?' she hesitates, 
momentarily, before concluding, 'I'd like to eat Mailer's heart - is that it!' 55 Only 
by absorbing the male/Mailer perspective into the female perspective could 
Oates finally write, she claims, as a genderless 'aficionado'. 56 

Even more competitive than writers, jazz musicians have often compared 
themselves to fighters. Battles of the bands were a notable feature of the turn- 



Posters advertising 
Beenie Man, Undis- 
puted, New York, 






I riATDIII M, r I ! ■■ :■ S L I J' ). 



of-the-century New Orleans jazz scene and carried on into the swing and bebop 
eras, when the music press pitted bop against traditional jazz 'with the zest of 
boxing promoters'. 57 Jam sessions or cutting contests between individual mu- 
sicians were also frequently imagined as fights: from the twenties, when a 
'southpaw' called Seminole 'dethroned' Count Basie, to the alternating solos of 
tenor saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray in the late forties. 58 Gor- 
don and Gray's most successful albums were called The Chase and The Hunt, 
but remembering them later, producer Ross Russell adopted the less rural 
image of a 'contest between evenly matched boxers of contrasting skills, a 
Dempsey against a Joe Louis, a Marciano against a Muhammad Ali'. 59 Observ- 
ing his twelve-year-old brother Lester's eagerness to join in such contests, Lee 
Young said, 'he really wanted to see who was the better man; it would be just 
like a prize fighter or a wrestler'. 60 'You defended your honour with your instru- 
ment,' recalled Duke Ellington. 61 

In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison compares Louis Armstrong's ability to 'bend' 
the military trumpet into a 'beam of lyrical sound' to a prize-fighter who dis- 
rupts an existing rhythm by slipping 'into the breaks'. 62 Boxing, in other words, 
has its equivalent to the 'true jazz moment' of improvisation, which Ellison else- 
where defines as springing 'from a contest in which each artist challenges the 
rest'. 63 In Chapter Nine, I considered Miles Davis's improvisation-as-boxing in 
Jack Johnson, but twenty years earlier Babs Gonzalez used Charlie Parker's 'Or- 
nithology' (itself an outgrowth of 'How High the Moon') as the starting point for 
'Sugar Ray', a track which celebrated the boxer as the epitome of 'cool'. 64 In 

2003, Matthew Shipp recorded an album 
in which his own free jazz piano 'boxed' 
with the experimental rap of Antipop 
Consortium. 65 

Prize-fighting imagery is not restricted 
to jazz. Volume three of the 1959 Battle of 
the Blues series presented two musicians in 
dinner jackets and boxing gloves; volume 
four retained the boxing motif, expressed 
on the cover by an image of two smiling 
women in bathing suits and gloves (illus. 
151). Meanwhile, Jamaican reggae (born at 
the height of Ali's fame) has often imagined 
'soundboy killings' between rival djs as 
boxing matches. 66 In 2004, Beenie Man de- 
clared himself 'King of the Dancehall', a 
title his 2006 album Undisputed seeks to 
uphold (illus. 151). 6y The Jamaican Dj-ing 
battle and blues boasts in turn provide 
models for the seemingly endless con- 
ma frontations of rap. 68 Numerous songs have 



lUTDUHr Till KM I 

r U-TAN 

■ J a WIBg8 

mM M - *" -nn-rrn-B— 1 — ■- 





been devoted to proclamations about the mc's prowess, his rival's uselessness 
and/or homosexuality, and their 'rhyme for rhyme, word for word, verse for 
verse' battles. 69 Big Daddy Kane disses his opponent as a 'featherweight' whose 
rhymes won't earn points; Coolio announces that 'the championship belt is what 
I taste and claim'; Sticky Fingers proclaims himself a 'heavyweight (and still 
undisputed)'; and Q-Tip complains that his hands are blistered from tightly hold- 
ing the mic that knocked out his opponent. 70 Too often, laments George Nelson, 
hip hop turns itself into a new version of the battle royal - 'young African- 
American men bashing each other for a predominantly white audience'. 71 

Rivalry is not the only way in which the dialectics of boxing functions. Often 
it expresses a more complicated relationship between 'polar opposites'. 72 The scope 
of the encounter (as well as the medium in which it is expressed) varies consider- 
ably. The oppositions might be cultural or conceptual, political or stylistic, pure- 
ly abstract or deeply personal. Senam Okudzeto's Long Distance Lover (1999-2000), 
for example, places delicately painted boxers on British Telecom phone bills reveal- 
ing calls from London to Ghana and the United States. 'The idea', Okudzeto said, 
'is that you see a person in argument with herself. The two figures represent conflict- 
ing opinions, ideologies and identities within the same psyche.' 73 Elsewhere box- 
ing is used to dramatize a sexual encounter or fantasy. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom 
masturbates to thoughts of a 'hefty coarse Negress' with 'big cocoa-colored breasts' 
which 'swing into his face like boxing gloves with sensitive tips'. 74 

Boxing provides just one of many overwrought images for Updike. For other 
writers, however, it reflects an enduring preoccupation with duality and conflict. 
Joyce Carol Oates's fiction is populated by twins and doubles - the ego and the 
alter-ego; the good girl and the bad girl; the public self and the private self. 75 
Enid Maria Stevick, the protagonist of You Must Remember This (1987) is atypi- 
cal Oates 'double personality' - both a 'nice Catholic girl' who plays the piano, 
and a bad girl who has an affair with her half-uncle, Felix, an ex-boxer. 76 
Throughout the novel, their relationship is figured as a competitive boxing 
match. The story begins with the fifteen-year old swallowing a bottle of aspirin 
after Felix tries to break off the relationship with a slap to her face - 'she hadn't 
seen it coming and her head knocked against the side of the window and for an 
instant she was stunned, astonished'. 77 Her suicide attempt, however, provides 
the counterpunch that their relationship/fight needs. Felix now recognizes that 
they have a 'blood bond as if between two men who'd fought each other to a 
draw'. 78 He finds this much more satisfying than his initial rape of Enid, her 
body then merely offering 'some small unwitting resistance'. 79 The 'blood bond' 
between Enid and Felix is broken when she forms an alternative bond by getting 
pregnant and then by having an abortion. 

Felix gave up boxing when the 'joy of the body' was overtaken by a realiza- 
tion (again in the form of an unanticipated punch) that 'he was going to die'. 
Enid's bodily education (a progression of suffering from rape to attempted 
suicide to abortion) is also compared to a series of unexpected, and near-deathly, 
blows. 80 At the same time as Oates asserts the incommensurability of gender, 


she argues that pain and the fear of death provide a level playing-field on which 
men and women can compete. The masculine world (epitomized by boxing) 
and the feminine world (epitomized by reproductive and sexual trauma) seem 
comparable in the amount of suffering each entails. Ultimately, however, Oates 
believes that women cope much better than men with that suffering. 81 You Must 
Remember This ends with Enid winning a scholarship to music college and Felix 
being beaten to death in the toilets of a diner. 

The frequently interchangeable categories of boxing and sex also appeal to 
artists less interested with pitting an essential masculinity against an essential 
femininity than with exploring oppositions within these categories. 82 Occasion- 
ally, the relationship is reciprocal - in Rita Mae Brown's Southern Discomfort, 
one woman tells another that love means 'you're in my corner and I'm in yours', 
while Keith Haring's shiny red and blue steel Boxers (1988) thrust their arms 
symmetrically through one another's bodies (illus. 123) - but usually a balance 
of power is at stake. 83 Judith Halberstam, for example, argues that the figure of 
the woman boxer, the 'raging bull dyke', epitomizes the 'masculine woman', the 
kind who prefers to 'give than to take'. 84 Tony Kushner, meanwhile, uses an 
allusion to the Brown Bomber in his play Angels in America (1990-93) to explore 
political tension within the gay community of eighties New York. At first 
Reaganite Joe and liberal Louis find their ideological disputes sexy - Joe tells 
Louis that 'Freedom is where we bleed into one another. Right and Left' - but 
eventually their arguments turn serious and physical. 85 

In writing by men, a series of familiar fantasies recur: aristocrats eulogize 
working class toughs; white men dream about black men; soft men desire hard 
men; and Jean Genet writes poems to his 'thief-boxer', a 'muscled rose'. 86 Usually 
thought of as an elegy for the 'belle epoque' before aids, Alan Hollinghurst's The 
Swimming-Pool Library (1988) exposes the power relations involved in such 
fantasies. The narrator, Will Beckwith, and the man he works for, Lord Charles 
Nantwich, belong to 'that tiny proportion of the population that . . . owns almost 
everything' and who therefore treat the world like a 'great big public school'. 
Public school provides a model for the homosocial, and mostly homosexual, 
London that Will inhabits. Swimming (in the West End Corinthian Club) is the 
book's central metaphor for the escape and freedom offered by that world; 
boxing (in an East End Boys' Club) provides a contrasting image of the violence 
it can contain. 87 

Nantwich's love of boxing began during his Edwardian schooldays at Win- 
chester College. He then became a colonial administrator in the Sudan (where 
he developed a passion for young black men) and on his return to London, set 
up a club in Limehouse to teach 'rough boys' how to box. 88 The link between his 
boxing and colonial interests is encapsulated in the portrait of a beautiful black 
man he keeps on the wall of his London house. The man Will identifies as 'an 
eighteenth-century colonial servant' turns out to be the boxer and trainer Bill 
Richmond, who had boxed with Byron. Will is happy to note how times have 
changed since Nantwich went to prison for soliciting, and indeed since Byron's 


day, but Hollinghurst also wants to draw attention to the ways in which times 
haven't changed. Will visits the boxing club and admires a boy with 'pink and 
gold colouring like my own' (and also like the inmate of a penitentiary as imag- 
ined by Genet') fighting a black boy. He is 'moved' by the occasion, finding an 
'innocence' in it. He admires the 'careless fondness' with which the golden boy 
embraces his opponent at the end. This 'little manly world', he suggests, is 'in 
some ideal Greek way' maintained with 'an ethos of sport rather than violence'. 
In the wider world, Will knows that fights degrade and damage (a view that is 
confirmed when he is beaten up by 'sexy' skinheads on the street), but he likes 
to think that the homosocial worlds he inhabits are different. Hollinghurst, 
however, encourages his readers to notice the gap between Will's interpretation 
of events and his descriptions. For an occasion intended to symbolize Greek 
sportsmanship, the boys club fight is a rather gruesome affair. The white boy 
hits the black boy with a 'vicious jab' and the spectators are said to have heard 
'a strange, squinching little sound, as of the yielding of soft, adolescent bone 
and gristle'. Will notices that the white boy's glove, raised in victory, is smeared 
with 'the bright trace of blood'. Nevertheless, he goes on to talk of innocence and 
tenderness. 89 

In other 'little manly worlds' (many of which are described as hot and en- 
closed, like a boxing ring), the encounters between men are also often violent 
and described in terms that recall the Limehouse fight. Arthur, a young black 
boy from the East End, takes refuge in Will's West End flat and turns the heat- 
ing up. Torn between 'disgust' and a desire to 'save' Arthur, Will initiates sex. 
This takes the form of 'a few seconds brutal fumbling' accompanied by Arthur's 
'shouts of pain'. Once more, Will is 'moved'. Later he has sex with working- 
class, ex-boxer Phil at a hotel called the Queensberry (Wilde's adversary was 
also the man who established the modern rules of boxing). There, in a 'small 
bed' which reminds him of school, he again takes sexual 'command' and again 
his passion is 'almost cruel'. Will bites Phil's lips 'brutally' until they bleed and, 
at one point, their 'skulls cracked together quite painfully'. Phil, despite his 
'hard' body, is 'powerless'. Mapping the history of gay oppression in Britain, 
The Swimming-Pool Library also exposes forms of oppression within the public- 
school version of gay culture. 90 

While Hollinghurst contrasts the violence of boxing with the meditative 
activity of swimming, Douglas Oliver compares it to meditation itself. 'The Jains 
and the Boxer' is a poetic dialogue between the 'unending harmlessness' of Jain- 
ism and the boxer's desire to punch 'harm into harm in sadistic rhymes'. This 
is partly autobiographical (Oliver trying to reconcile the memory of his 'schiz- 
ophrenic' boyhood spent reading and boxing) but mostly a matter of poetics 
and philosophy. What Oliver wants to do is find a way of expressing the relation- 
ship between continuity (poetically, the 'brief interval' in which 'the vowel con- 
tinues unharmed') and violent change (in poetic terms, the 'purity' of the vowel 
is 'destroyed by a diphthong glide or a consonant.') 91 Julio Cortazar had other 
concerns. For him, the novel and the short story are the contenders. Either 


might triumph, but 'the novel would win by points and the short story by a 
knockout'. 92 Yet another debate about aesthetics informs R. B. Kitaj's 1992 
painting Whistler vs. Ruskin (Novella in Terre Verte, Yellow and Red) , a reworking 
of Bellows's Dempsey and Firpo. 93 Reviewing Whistler's Nocturne in Black and 
Gold: The Falling Rocket in 1877, John Ruskin famously wrote that he'd 'never ex- 
pected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in 
the public's face'. 94 Whistler brought a libel suit against Ruskin and won, 
although the judge only awarded him a farthing in damages. By presenting the 
quarrel in terms of both a famous boxing painting and a famous boxing match 
Kitaj is inviting viewers to think about his painting as a 'novella', a story about 
characters that Victorian viewers like Ruskin might have enjoyed. By drawing 
attention to the painting's colours, however, Kitaj seems to be siding with 
Whistler and the purely aesthetic gaze. The painting includes a self-portrait as 
the referee. 

Dada's boxing pranks also continue to influence artists interested in shock 
and repudiation. One of Guy Debord's heroes was Arthur Cravan, whose aes- 
thetic of pugilistic provocation informs Debord's conception of 'detournement', 
or the 'mutual interference of two worlds of feeling'. 95 Debord's 1952 film, 
Hurlements enfaveur de Sade {Hurls for Sade), juxtaposes scenes of riots, battles 
and a boxing match, while Guy Debord: Son Art et Son Temps (1994) includes 
footage from the 1916 Cravan vs. Johnson newsreel. 96 In 1972, meanwhile, as 
part of the Documenta 5 exhibition, Joseph Beuys established an Information 
Office for the 'Organisation for Direct Democracy Through Referendum'. For 
100 days he discussed the nature of democracy with visitors. During the course 
of these debates, his pupil Abraham David Christian invited him to take part in 
a 'Boxing match for Direct Democracy' and this became the exhibition's closing 
event. Beuys fought on behalf of direct democracy while Christian represented 
delegated democracy. Another of Beuys 's pupils, Anatol Herzfeld, acted as ref- 
eree and afterwards reported that Beuys had won on points. His 'direct hits' 
had established the case for direct democracy. 97 For Debord and Beuys (as for 
Tzara and Cravan), the punch provides a metaphor for unmediated address; it 
represents that which cannot be faked, and as such, is the obverse of the 'soci- 
ety of the spectacle'. When Beuys wanted to attack television culture in 1966, he 
staged a performance in which he punched himself in the face in front of a felt- 
covered television set. 98 Since then, and for similar reasons, performance artists 
and art galleries have periodically staged boxing matches. 99 

For the American novelist Philip Roth, the very idea of direct and authen- 
tic address has always been suspect. Nevertheless, on occasion, he too has relied 
on descriptions of punches to make his point. In Chapter Six, I considered Roth's 
trips with his father to see fights at Newark's Laurel Garden and his adolescent 
obsession with Jewish boxers. 100 Later he reflected that boxing was a 'strange 
deviation from the norm' of Jewish culture and 'interesting largely for that rea- 
son'. 101 Boxing imagery crops up throughout Roth's fiction as a way of describ- 
ing the contradictions of his childhood and beyond. On the one hand are bouts 


between Jewish and Gentile identities (dramatized through his father's interest 
in watching Jews fight men of other ethnicities); on the other, is the contest be- 
tween different versions of a Jewish-American childhood (the Jewish 'norm' vs. 
the 'strange deviation' of boxing). 

The first kind of competition (Jews vs. Gentiles) is enacted in Roth's first 
novel, Portnoy's Complaint (1969). There the Jew is the narrator, Alex Portnoy, 
and his opponents, a variety of Gentile girlfriends. First Alex draws a parallel be- 
tween the 'rough' and unsatisfying 'hand-job' he has received from Bubbles 
Girardi and the exploits of her brother 'Geronimo' Girardi in the Hoboken box- 
ing world. Soon boxing provides a way of expressing the fact that sex is less 
about the girls than their 'backgrounds - as though through fucking I will dis- 
cover America'. So, weighing 170 pounds, 'at least half of which is undigested 
halvah and hot pastrami', and wearing 'black pubic hair', Alex 'The Shnoz' Port- 
noy takes on Sarah Abbott Maulsby, 114 pounds of 'Republican refinement', 
wearing 'fair fuzz'. 102 

Fighting the goyim is 'clear', a 'good, righteous, guilt-free punch up'. 103 Con- 
tests between the 'mirrored fragments' of Jewishness are more complicated. 104 
This second kind of bout is staged in The Ghost Writer (1979). There the narra- 
tor Nathan Zuckerman finds himself arguing with his father at a New York 
intersection about whether he is the 'kind of person' who would write a story 
making fun of Jews like his family. 'I am, he says; 'You're not', his father says, 
shaking him 'just a little'. 

But I hopped up onto the bus, and then behind me the pneumatic door, 
with its hard rubber edge, swung shut with what I took to be an overly 
appropriate thump, a symbol of the kind you leave out of fiction. It was 
a sound that brought back to me the prize fights at Laurel Garden, 
where once a year my brother and I used to wager our pennies with one 
another, each of us alternating backing the white fighter or the colored 
fighter . . . What I heard was the heartrending thud that follows the 
roundhouse knockout punch, the sound of the stupefied heavyweight 
hitting the canvas floor. And what I saw was . . . my bewildered father, 
alone on the darkening street-corner by the park that used to be our 
paradise, thinking himself and all of Jewry gratuitously disgraced and 
jeopardized by my inexplicable betrayal. 105 

What Nathan hears (the heartrending thud that reminds him of Laurel Garden) 
and what he sees (his neatly dressed father and the 'park that used to be our 
paradise') are of course at odds. One childhood memory is set against another, 
as are the two interpretations of Nathan's short story. His father thinks the story 
is about 'one thing and one thing only . . . kikes and their love of money'; Nathan 
retorts, 'I was administering a bear hug'. Love vs. Hate. Neither man concedes 
to the other at that New York intersection. 'Nor was that the end,' begins the 
next paragraph. 


The Ghost Writer was the first in what would become a trilogy of novels fea- 
turing Nathan Zuckerman; novels which continued to debate what kind of 
writer, what kind of Jew, what kind of man he should be. After an interval writ- 
ing other works, Roth returned to his alter ego in 1997 for a second trilogy of 
novels. Nathan now became the chronicler of the central 'historical moments in 
postwar American life': late-sixties radicalism, the McCarthy witch hunts of the 
fifties, and their equivalents in the late-nineties 'culture wars'. 106 Each novel also 
tells the story of an athlete. 'Swede' Levov is 'our household Apollo', a Jew who 
is 'as close as a goy as we were going to get'; Ira Ringold is a six-foot six-inch Jew 
who looks like a prize fighter; Coleman Silk is black but passes successfully as 
both a Jewish classics professor and a Jewish boxer. 107 1 don't have space here to 
discuss the trilogy's sustained (and rather Nietzschean) classicism except to 
note that an 'aura of heroic purity' surrounds each of these men and that each 
is also marked with an all-too-human stain. 108 

In American Pastoral, high school sports represent the golden goyische 
image which post-war Jews like Zuckerman fear and desire. In I Married a Com- 
munist, Roth narrows his focus to boxing and uses it as a metaphor for the 
various 'fights' - with received wisdom, 'tyranny and injustice', their employers 
and wives, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and, finally, old age 
- that Murray and Ira (Iron Man) Ringold undertake. 109 Zuckerman too is 
drawn into the fight. Because of his association with the Ringolds, he fails to 
get a Fulbright scholarship. 'I wuz robbed,' he later jokes to Murray - a boxing 
allusion that both men would surely recognize. In 1932, when Max Schmeling 
lost his title to Jack Sharkey by a dubious decision, his Jewish manager Joe Jacobs 
famously protested 'We wuz robbed'. 110 

The Ringolds are an inspiration to Nathan not only because of their size 
and athletic 'strenuousness', but also because they represent to him the possi- 
bility of 'forceful, intelligent manliness', the possibility of being an 'angry Jew' 
and having 'convictions'. They teach him that it is possible to talk about politics, 
boxing and books in the same way. 'Not opening up a book to worship it or to 
be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the 
book.' 'The Ringolds were the one-two punch promising to initiate me into the 
big show, into my beginning to understand what it takes to be a man on the 
larger scale.' 111 

I Married a Communist has something of the Socratic dialogue about it - 
with Nathan as the young acolyte sitting at the feet of a series of books and 'men 
to whom I apprenticed myself'. 112 At college, he is introduced to another 
teacher, Leo Glucksman, who offers an alternative perspective to that of the 
Ringolds. If they believe in the (heterosexual) power of the word to change the 
world, he is a (homosexual) advocate of art for art's sake - 'You want a lost cause 
to fight for? Then fight for the word.' 113 Nathan fluctuates. Ultimately, he rejects 
the 'zealotry' or 'purity' of any one position - associated with Leo and also with 
Ira's hardline communist mentor, Jack O'Day - for an uncertainty that he shares 
with the flawed Ira. 114 Late in the novel, he recalls Murray acting out Macbeth, 


another story about manliness and betrayal, for his high school class. The most 
memorable lines come from an exchange between Malcolm and Macduff: 'Dispute 
it like a man,' orders Malcolm; 'I shall do so,' replies Macduff, 'But I must also feel 
it as a man.' 115 The 'dichotomies' of the heart, its 'thousand and one dualities', are, 
Nathan concludes, what makes us human and alive. ll6 To find a situation in which 
there is 'no antagonism', we have to look to the stars; in other words, we have to die. 

Coleman Silk, in The Human Stain, also inspires Zuckerman. If the Ringolds 
are 'extra fathers', Silk is an extra big brother. Although they only meet as old 
men, it transpires that they grew up less than five miles apart and nearly coin- 
cided in after-school boxing classes. 117 The connection is reinforced by the game 
Roth seems to be playing with their names - the story of a black man - coal man 
- presented in parallel to that of a Jewish - Zucker or, with more boxing conno- 
tations, Sugar - man. (In I Married a Communist, Nathan had sought guidance 
from irate Ira, a.k.a. 'Iron Man', and Glucksman, or Lucky Man). 118 If the Sugar 
Ray Robinson association seems stretched, it might be worth noting that the 
boxer was commonly known as Smitty. 'Call me Smitty,' began Roth's 1973 The 
Great American Novel. It would hardly be surprising to find the much-pseudo- 
nymed Roth emulating the typical prize-fighter's penchant for inventing names. 
Coleman's ring name is 'Silky Silk', smooth and slippery in the ring and in life. 119 

'My impulse,' Roth once said, 'is to problematize material ... I like when 
it's opposed by something else, by another point of view.' 120 In The Human Stain, 
the material to be problematized is that of fixed identity (in particular racial 
and ethnic identity) and the impulse to present it in opposition is considered 
through the metaphor of the counterpunch. Coleman may believe that 'self- 
discovery - that was the punch to the labonz' (after all, says Nathan, that's the 
'drama that underlines America's story') - but his whole life has been based on 
playing a part. 121 As a young man Coleman had been a keen boxer, and in 
particular, a counterpuncher, a style that Zuckerman believes he also adopts 
outside of the ring. 

All the other kids were always blabbing about themselves. But that was- 
n't where the power was or the pleasure either. The power and pleasure 
were to be found in the opposite, in being counterconfessional in the 
same way you were a counterpuncher . . . 

The culture (the 'other kids') requires the declaration or exposure of an overtly 
marked identity. It jabs Coleman with its demand for confession. He replies by 
'slipping the punch' and offering, in return, a counterlife - an identity that is nei- 
ther black nor white, but Jewish. One 'impersonates best the self that best gets 
one through'. 122 

Zuckerman too is concerned with impersonation. He freely admits that his 
version of Coleman Silk's life is a fiction and one that he is constructing with his 
own preoccupations in mind. Is the story so much about boxing simply because 
Zuckerman has put a framed photograph of Coleman as a 'boy boxer' on his 


writing desk? 123 But there are different styles of boxing. The main lesson that big 
90-year-old Murray Ringold taught Zuckerman was how to achieve a 'state of 
ardorlessness'; in him, 'human dissatisfaction has met its match', Zuckerman 
notes with awe. He concludes that 'the man who first taught me how you box with 
a book is back now to demonstrate how you box with old age'. The lesson that the 
70-year-old Silk teaches the now impotent, continent and deeply depressed Zuck- 
erman is quite different. He is all ardour, all 'allure' and dancing 'magnetism', a 
counterpuncher. A 'goat-footed Pan', Silky Silk dances Nathan back to life. 124 

Coleman's favourite book is the Iliad and throughout Zuckerman's tale he 
adopts many Homeric roles: after the death of his wife, he is 'adrenal Achilles' 
('they meant to kill me and they got her instead'); with Faunia, his 'Helen of 
Troy', he is Paris. 125 Most importantly, however, he plays Patroclus to Zucker- 
man's Achilles. Wearing on his shoulders the armour of both Zuckerman's Jew- 
ishness and 'sexual rapacity', Coleman had taken Zuckerman's place on the 
battlefields of the American culture wars. 126 In his honour, funeral games must 
be performed. Standing at Coleman's graveside, he confesses, 'I was completely 
seized by his story . . . and then and there, I began this book.' 127 Zuckerman 
does not stage an athletic contest (an imitation of military combat) but, with the 
photograph of the boy boxer on his desk, writes a counterpunching novel (the 
form which he believes best imitates the 'antagonism that is the world'). 128 Like 
the funeral games, art can sometimes seem to defy death. Zuckerman goes to 
hear the pianist Yefim Bronfman. Another boxer-type, 'conspicuously massive 
through the upper torso', Bronfman plays 'with such bravado as to knock mor- 
bidity clear out of the ring'. 129 


Today much of the visual representation of boxing capitalizes on, or interro- 
gates, the symbolic resonance of specific individuals, objects and events. Certain 
fights have a particularly powerful resonance or aura - a 'uniqueness' that can 
only be understood by saying 'I was there', or 'I knew someone who was there', 
or, at the very least, 'I remember where I was when it happened'. 130 Every box- 
ing fan can name the special fights - from Louis vs. Schmeling to the Rumble in 
the Jungle, memorialized by one man in Don DeLillo's White Noise (1984) as 'the 
southernmost point I've ever brushed my teeth at'. 131 In White Noise, boxing 
matches and rock concerts mark historical milestones in individual lives; in 
DeLillo's more portentous Underworld (1997), sports events become 'measures 
of the awesome' and represent the possibility of a communal history. Under- 
world begins with an iconic baseball game - the Giants' defeat of the Dodgers 
in 1951. DeLillo imagines Russ Hodges, the radio 'voice of the Giants', antici- 
pating the game ahead and feeling lucky because 'something big's in the works'. 

But he finds himself thinking of the time his father took him to see 
Dempsey fight Willard in Toledo and what a thing that was, what a 


measure of the awesome, the Fourth of July and a hundred and ten 
degrees and a crowd of shirtsleeved men in straw hats, many wearing 
handkerchiefs spread beneath their hats and down to their shoulders, 
making them look like play-Arabs, and the greatness of the beating big 
Jess took in that white hot ring, the way the sweat and blood came mist- 
ing off his face every time Dempsey hit him. When you see a thing like 
that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier 
of some solemn scrap of history. 132 

Hodges, and DeLillo, following Walter Benjamin, want to mark a sharp dis- 
tinction between the experience of the thing itself and that of its mechanical 
reproduction (here, the newsreel). But it may also be possible to think of the 
kind of aura that did not only survive mechanical reproduction but flourished 
because of it, through the star-making technologies of film, television, video 
and dvd. Perhaps we could speak of an after-aura in the same way that we speak 
of an after-image. DeLillo himself only knows the Dempsey-Willard fight 
through a 1919 film. The after-aura of the Rumble in the Jungle (and two other 
Ali fights) was the subject of Paul Pfeiffer's video installation The Long Count 
(2000-2001) in which the boxers themselves have been removed from the 
footage. As the ropes bulge and bounce back, we sense their ghostly presence. 133 

Hip hop's interest in boxing is usually an attempt to tap into the much- 
mediated after-aura of heavyweight heroes. Occasionally, rappers talk of 'knock- 
ing niggers out like Jack Dempsey' or Rocky Balboa, but most compare 
themselves to either Ali or Tyson. 134 Allusions to Ali tend to refer to his reputa- 
tion as a stylist, both as a boxer and as a prototypical punning, rhyming and 
boasting rap artist. 135 Ali's status as Greatest or g.o.a.t. is also one that many 
rappers want to emulate, and many rhyme 'Manila' with descriptions of them- 
selves as a 'killer' or claim that they too could 'float like a butterfly / sting like a 
bee' (rhymed with mc). 136 In the ever-more-hyperbolic world of rap lyrics, the 
butterfly's floating has been superseded by helium and the bee's sting replaced 
by the pique of the scorpion or Tabasco. 137 More seriously, Chuck d of Public 
Enemy (a group that has been described as 'rap's conscience') instructed black 
'entertainers and athletes' to follow Ali's example and use their celebrity to in- 
spire, uplift and talk about 'the untalked about'. 138 

If Ali suggested skill, grace and political commitment, Tyson represented 
both the possibility of instant stardom and the endurance of a 'fierce, reckless 
fury'. That is why Tyson, rather than any single musician, says Nelson George, 
'embodied hip hop' in the eighties. 139 Tyson's name is mentioned in 'scores of rap 
records' over the last 30 years, ll Cool j declared himself 'bad' - like Tyson icin' 
I'm a soldier at war', while Will Smith in his self-mocking Fresh Prince persona 
boasted 'I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson'. 140 The 'perfect fighter for the mtv gen- 
eration', Tyson also became a popular figure in music videos and computer 
games. 141 Just after his release from jail in 1995, he appeared as himself in Black 
and White, James Toback's film about hip hop culture's attraction for wealthy 


white teenagers. Tyson appears as a guru for the black rappers (Wu-Tang Clan) 
and a sexual magnet for the white tourists (played by Brooke Shields, Robert 
Downey Jr and Claudia Schiffer). 142 

Nelson sees a parallel between the progression of Tyson's career and that of 
hip hop itself. After 1990, he maintains, both lost their way: a process that 
culminated in Tupac Shakur's murder on leaving a Tyson fight in 1996, and in 
Tyson's biting a piece of Holyfield's ear, 'a testament to the impatience and un- 
focused rage that often mar contemporary black youth culture'. 143 In 1998, ll 
Cool j (responding to an attack on his reputation by Canibus, featuring Tyson), 
released 'The Ripper is Back', a homophobic attack on 'that convicted rapist' 
which demanded to know what the 'Ear Biter taught you', and in 2002, Motion 
Man boasted of his ability to attack 'human flesh like I'm Tyson or Jeffrey 
Dahmer'. 144 Since then Roy Jones Jr (title holder in every division from middle 
to heavyweight) has released two rap albums, which, his website says, try to 
promote a 'positive lifestyle'. In the first, he introduces himself, 'I'm Roy Jones 
. . ./ the legend . . . you found one.' 145 

The iconography of boxers has also been important for Spike Lee, whose 
film -making career has its roots in the eighties revival of Black Nationalist rhet- 
oric and imagery, particularly the idea of the 'Wall of Respect'. School Daze 
(1988) opens with a montage of still photographs of familiar figures - from Dou- 
glass to Jesse Jackson to Louis and Ali - accompanied by the spiritual, 'I'm Build- 
ing Me a Home'. 146